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Russia Targets Racist Groups

June 28, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Seeking to combat hate crimes, the lower house of the Russian parliament approved a bill Thursday that gives authorities new tools to outlaw skinhead and neo-Nazi organizations. But human rights proponents warned that the legislation goes too far and could be turned against almost any civic association.

The "Law on Preventing Extremist Activities" was pushed through the State Duma, or lower house, in reaction to a string of racist and anti-Semitic attacks since April that had prompted protests from the diplomatic community and aroused the public ire of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The bill would outlaw extremist groups that preach racial or national superiority, use Nazi symbols, support armed activities or call for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order. People who organize such groups could face up to six years in prison.

Under one of the legislation's provisions, local Interior Ministry officials are empowered to suspend a public organization and freeze its assets if they conclude that it is extremist. Critics said that puts too much discretion in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats.

"This law allows the closure of public organizations without a court decision. Think about it: It is a very, very dangerous law," Grigory A. Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, told The Times on Thursday.

But one of his own bloc's members, Yuri P. Shchekochikhin, voted for the bill, saying he hoped it would encourage police to start taking hate crimes seriously.

"Most European countries have anti-extremist and anti-fascist laws, and until now we didn't," he said. "We really need one. We badly need to stop the fast-growing 'fascistization' of the country, especially among the young people."

The measure had been submitted to the Duma by Putin and passed on its third reading, 274-145. Most of the dissent came from Communist Party members and their allies, who feared that they and their supporters could become victims of the legislation if they stage mass demonstrations.

Among the most wary were organizations that frequently find themselves at loggerheads with the Kremlin.

"We have very deep concerns," said Tatyana I. Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, an organization that monitors human rights and fights for former political prisoners. "We do a lot of work in Chechnya and can't help but criticize the authorities for their actions there. And now, we are concerned that the authorities could declare us an extremist organization and close us down."

The bill still must be approved by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, before going to Putin for his signature. But it is not expected to encounter serious opposition.

An e-mail threatening violence sent to foreign residents of Moscow by skinheads in April kept many Africans and Asians off the street for days and prompted an unusual joint protest by diplomats to the Foreign Ministry.

Since then, there have been a number of racist and anti-Semitic acts, including the beating of an American rabbi's son, an explosion of a booby-trapped sign reading "Death to Jews" and the killing of an Afghan translator.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, author of a new book here titled "Nazism in Russia," said Thursday that Russia's largest cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod, are home to thousands of neo-Nazi skinheads.

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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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