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(photo credit: Courtesy)
New information is bolstering claims that a recent attack in St. Petersburg against one of Russia's leading hate-crimes experts was aimed at coercing her to change her testimony in a high-profile trial.
Valentina Uzunova, 59, who frequently testifies as an expert witness in cases relating to hate crimes and xenophobic activity, was attacked on June 19 by a masked woman at roughly 6 p.m. as she was leaving the family home of a colleague who was murdered three years ago.
According to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, Uzunova's assailant repeatedly struck her on the head before stealing several court documents relating to the trial of Vladislav Nikolsky, at which Uzunova was set to testify the following day.
Nikolsky is charged with distributing extremist literature and forming a nationalist organization.
Testimony from human rights workers like Uzunova is often the key factor in securing convictions under Russia's hate crimes statutes. Using violence to dissuade them from testifying could have a chilling effect on an integral barrier against anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi violence in Russia.
Most cases of anti-Semitic violence are not prosecuted under the stringent statutes for which stricter penalties are mandated, but rather are treated as "hooliganism."
By most expert accounts, incidents of anti-Semitic and racially motivated violence have continued to rise steadily in recent years. In May, at the fifth round of Russia-EU Human Rights Consultations in Berlin, the Moscow-based nonprofit SOVA Center presented bleak data on the matter. The center monitors hate crimes and advocates for stronger legislation and awareness of xenophobia in Russia.
According to SOVA, Russia experienced a 30 percent increase in attacks this winter over the preceding year. Between January and April, 172 attacks occurred, resulting in 23 fatalities.
"Over the reviewed period we have observed an increase of racist and neo-Nazi violence which, unfortunately, the law enforcement agencies have not been able to stem, especially in the main centers of violence, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg," according to the report.
Uzunova, of the group For a Russia Without Racism, was attacked following a visit to the family of Nikolai Girenko on the third anniversary of his slaying. Girenko, an expert on ethnic minorities, was shot to death through his apartment door. As in many cases involving activists, no one has been charged in his murder.
Alexander Vinnikov, a senior official at the St. Petersburg Union of Scientists and a co-worker of Uzunova's, told the St. Petersburg Times the Nikolsky investigation was nearing completion.
"Uzunova had enough evidence in her hands for the judge to convict Nikolsky during the next hearing," Vinnikov said.
The attack on Uzunova has angered the human rights community over a perceived lack of police protection. Uzunova had requested police protection after receiving repeated threats, including a recent anonymous nighttime call in which the caller threatened to kill Uzunova and her family if she did not help to clear a defendant now facing extremism charges in court.
Police rejected her request, citing a lack of credible evidence. They found the public telephone from which the call was made, but could not establish the caller's identity.
For her colleagues and religious officials in the city, though, there is no question that the attack was coordinated by extremists.
Yuri Tabak, an expert on anti-Semitic and xenophobic literature at the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, spoke with JTA about what he views as a recent sharp increase in violent activity.
Tabak, who does not testify in open court, believes that while the police would like to do more to protect activists, they are hampered by a lack of resources.
"The level of xenophobic attacks and xenophobia is rising very quickly and definitively," he said. "Our police are not so efficient and they don't want to do much. It's not because exactly they don't want to do anything, but they have no resources, not enough money or qualified people to do it."
Menachem Mendel Pevzner, the chief Chabad rabbi in St. Petersburg, insisted during a conversation with JTA that the attack was related to Uzunova's work.
"The fact that certain people are not happy with the work these people were doing is quite obvious," Pevzner said. "The fact that it's hurting people is also obvious."
The climate of violence in St. Petersburg, the rabbi said, was much calmer now than during the lawlessness directly following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, he added, while the police have the best of intentions, they often don't take issues of anti-Semitic and interethnic violence as seriously as they should.
"Although they're trying to do the best they can," Pevzner said, "they're not accepting that they have to be more on top of the situation."
Human-rights activists as well those in so-called "anti-fascist" organizations in Russia frequently are the targets of violence, as in the case of Timur Kacharava, a student activist murdered by skinheads in St. Petersburg in 2005.
In most cases the authorities turn a blind eye.
"It does not help that only human rights groups are aware of the issues; ordinary people do not get the picture at all," said Natalya Yevdokimova, an adviser to Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the Council of Federation, the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly - the parliament of the Russian Federation. "The circumstances of and around these crimes, which are often classified as robberies, hooliganism or homicide, remain obscure to them."