Russian prosecutors charge Moscow synagogue attacker with hate crimes

By The Associated Press and Haaretz Service

Haaretz

Tevet 13, 5766

MOSCOW - Russian prosecutors said Friday a young man accused of attacking worshippers at a Moscow synagogue has been charged with racially motivated attempted murder, assault and actions aimed at humiliating national or religious groups.

The Moscow prosecutors' office said Alexander Koptsev, 20, had said during interrogation that he had committed the crime "out of envy toward them (Jews), since they live better," and that he had been inspired by books and Internet sites. He also told investigators that one of his motivations was "my desire to die," it said.

Koptsev said in televised comments that he was retracting a statement he made in custody, but he appeared to be referring to an earlier statement - not the one made public by prosecutors.

"After I was detained, I made statements. I retract them," he said from behind the bars of a courtroom cage in televised footage, his hair very short and his face marked with cuts and bruises. "The next day, an investigator came. I had myself more or less under control, and I made a normal statement."

The Moscow prosecutors' office could not be reached for comment, but its news release said Koptsev's statements about his motives came in the presence of a lawyer.

Koptsev allegedly stabbed and wounded eight men at a central Moscow synagogue on Wednesday evening.

A million Jews live in Russia, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities, and the Jewish community now is experiencing a revival after a wave of emigration to Israel and other countries. Rising xenophobia in recent years has seen hundreds of racially motivated attacks on targets including dark-skinned immigrants from former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains region.

Rights activists say hate groups are emboldened by authorities' mild approach to prosecuting hate crimes and complain that literature from Nazis and other extremists is sold freely.

In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, an intoxicated young man shouting anti-Semitic slogans was detained as he tried to enter a synagogue Friday and was jailed for five days for hooliganism, regional police spokesman Sergei Sidorov said. He denied a report that the man threatened people with the neck of a broken bottle.

The lower house of parliament's legislative committee has prepared a package of bills to strengthen anti-extremist legislation, committee head Pavel Krasheninnikov said Friday, according to the Interfax news agency.

Jewish leaders, however, have demanded that authorities push for better enforcement of existing laws.

U.S. Ambassador William Burns visited the synagogue on Friday morning.

"The United States welcomes Russian government statements condemning the attack and Prosecutor General (Vladimir) Ustinov's intent to oversee personally the criminal case," Burns said in a statement at the synagogue.

"We urge the Russian authorities to use all legal means to prosecute the perpetrator of this crime, and stop any such attacks in the future. It is crucially important to fight extremism in all its forms," Burns said.

Russian lawmakers take on extremism

The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament said Thursday that lawmakers might consider tougher legislation to prevent extremism after a knife attack on worshipers at a Moscow synagogue that wounded 11 people.

The attack at the Chabad Bronnaya synagogue came amid an increase in the activity of hate groups in Russia and in the number of racist crimes. Jewish leaders said the attack should serve as a clear message to Russian authorities and the public to fight racism.

Russian political parties, religious communities and the Russian Foreign Ministry all condemned the attack.

Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov said that while Russia had adequate legal means to fight any form of extremism, "if it does not guarantee the absence of such incidents that means we should consider toughening this legislation."

"The provocations of those who would like to bring about discord in Russian society and ignite national and religious dissension, which have not succeeded, will not succeed," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "We will continue an uncompromising struggle against all manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and religious intolerance."

NTV television said that five of the wounded remained hospitalized yesterday and that three were in serious condition. Among these were Israeli Yehezkel Menahem Aharon, Israeli sources said.

The attacker burst into the synagogue, shouted "I will kill Jews!" and began slashing at worshipers. The son of a rabbi wrestled him to the ground.

Police said they assumed the stabber belonged to a group with a nationalist, right wing and anti-Semitic ideology.