Foreign students living in fear as skinhead gangs murder again

Like thousands of Africans every year, Kanhem Leon came to Russia in search of the education that would give him a better life back home in Cameroon. Instead, the devout christian was stabbed to death by a gang of skinheads in St. Petersburg on Christmas Eve last week.

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By  Jeremy Page Published  January 1, 2006

Like thousands of Africans every year, Kanhem Leon came to Russia in search of the education that would give him a better life back home in Cameroon. Instead, the devout christian was stabbed to death by a gang of skinheads in St. Petersburg on Christmas Eve last week. Elsewhere, such a brutal attack might be regarded as a random act of violence. But not in Russia’s picturesque second city. Mr. Leon, 28, was the second African student in as many months to have been murdered by skinheads in St. Petersburg, and dozens more have been beaten or injured in knife attacks. Foreign students have accused the Russian government of turning a blind eye to neo-Nazi ‘death squads’ who openly patrol the city in combat fatigues and carry out regular attacks on non-Slavs with knives and clubs. Several hundred African, Arab and Asian students were expected to stage a protest in St. Petersburg last week to demand that local authorities punish Mr Leon’s killers and prevent further racist attacks. They have little cause for optimism, however, in a country where the police treat such assaults as ‘hooliganism’ rather than racially motivated crimes, which carry a heavier penalty. Aliu Dumkara, head of African Unity, a pressure group for African students in St. Petersburg, said that many foreign students would be too scared to attend last week's protest. “The Government is doing nothing. It seems to me they have no interest in this theme at all,” said Mr. Dumkara, who has lived in St. Petersburg for more than 20 years. “Racism is getting worse. The skinheads walk through the streets openly in groups of ten or more, wearing combat uniforms.” Racist attacks were rare in Soviet Union times, when hundreds of thousands of Africans and other foreign nationals studied in Moscow, St Petersburg and other educational centres. But since the Soviet Union’s collapse, unemployment and mass immigration from its former republics have led to a proliferation of neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremist groups. Russia now has an estimated 60,000 skinheads, compared with about 70,000 across the rest of the world. In the past two years they have carried out increasingly audacious, violent attacks on foreigners and non-Slavic Russians. According to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation, there were 44 racist killings in Russia in 2004, more than double the number in 2003. The problem has become so acute that President Putin, who is from St. Petersburg, apologised for the spate of racist attacks during a nationwide telephone call-in this year. “We will do everything to remove skinheads and fascist elements from the country’s political map,” he said. Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St. Petersburg, issued a statement last week in which she promised an “adequate response” to Mr. Leon’s murder. “Xenophobia and racism are no lesser threats to society than terrorism,” she said. “Groups of aggressively minded young people must not be allowed to walk around freely, with impunity.” Many critics doubt that the government will back up its words with action for fear of losing the support of the strong Russian ultra-nationalist lobby. Nikita Chaplin, the leader of the Russian Students’ Union, demanded that Mr. Putin personally oversee the investigation into Mr Leon’s death. “The Foreign Minister should personally go to St Petersburg and supervise the investigation of these crimes because it is unlikely that local authorities have the ability,” he told the radio station Ekho Moskvy. Student leaders also criticised the agencies that bring foreign students to Russia for not warning them about the threat of racist attacks. There are about 100,000 foreign students in Russia, a third from the former Soviet Union. Most choose it because tuition fees and living costs are much lower than in Europe or America. They have little idea of the risks of, say, travelling on the Metro or talking in public with a Russian woman, said Mr Dumkara. Mr. Leon, who was paying several thousand dollars a year for his studies, was attacked by a dozen skinheads as he walked with a Namibian colleague through central St Petersburg on Saturday night, according to police. The Namibian managed to escape unharmed, but a Kenyan student who was walking near by, Mwango Addie Maina, was also stabbed and seriously injured. Another Cameroonian student, who gave his name only as Theo, said of Mr. Leon: “He was a good Christian, very calm, and had no conflicts with anyone. He did not drink or chase girls. He just went to university and to church.” He added: “It’s very dangerous here now. Before they only beat us: now they kill.”

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