MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court handed down life sentences yesterday to five ultra-nationalists convicted of the racist murders of 27 people, and shorter prison terms to eight members of their group.
The ringleader was among the five men given life sentences for the 2007-08 killing spree in and around Moscow, which targeted people from Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus and from ex-Soviet Central Asia.
Standing in a glass box, the group shared jokes and attempted Nazi salutes in handcuffs before their sentencing in the Moscow Military District Court, state TV showed.
Eight members of the gang, including one young woman, were given terms of between eight and 25 years behind bars, Russian media reported.
Neo-nationalist groups have been increasing in number in Russia, and violent clashes in the capital between Muslims and ethnic Slavs have raised concerns authorities will be unable to keep order ahead of March 2012 elections.
Over the last two years, a judge and a lawyer who fought against neo-nationalists, Eduard Chuvashov and Stanislav Markelov, were shot and killed in attacks officials connected to their work.
Rights workers say the Russian government’s lenient attitude to the far right allows racism to flourish in Russia, which is home to some 20 million Muslims, a seventh of the population.
Many migrants from the impoverished North Caucasus, where an Islamist insurgency is raging, come to the Russian heartland for menial work. They say they are often treated with suspicion by ethnic Russians and many face racism.
Those convicted yesterday belong to the far-right Nationalist Socialist Society, which was outlawed in February and whose logo is a red and black stylised swastika.
The group’s leader Lev Molotkov pleaded not guilty, and the defence plans to appeal against the length of the sentences, Russian media reported.
After being convicted, some of the nationalists shouted: “Our conscience is above your laws, we’ll be back!” Interfax news agency reported.
They were also found guilty of attempted terrorism, creating and participating in extremism and inciting racial hatred.