ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Two leaders of a neo-Nazi gang were sentenced Tuesday to life in jail for a rash of hate killings that terrorized minorities in Russia's second-largest city.
The St. Petersburg City Court said Alexei Voevodin and Artyom Prokhorenko headed a gang that enlisted Russian supremacists and football fans aged 16 to 22 who preyed on non-Slavs with dark skin or Asian features, kicking and stabbing them to death.
The court also sentenced another 10 gang members to up to 18 years in jail for their roles in dozens of attacks over three years. Their victims included a nine-year old from the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan, and natives of North Korea, China and African nations.
The gang also killed two former members suspected of cooperating with police and buried their bodies in a suburban forest.
In 2004, the gang members gunned down Nikolai Girenko, a prominent expert on African ethnology and a human rights advocate who organized anti-racist conferences and helped police investigate hate crimes.
The killings rattled St. Petersburg, a city long plagued by assaults on labor migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia's Caucasus region, as well as natives of African and Asian nations. Critics accused police of doing little to prevent the crimes and find the culprits, and the gang was caught only after a local newspaper ran an investigative report.
Voevodin and Prokhorenko, with shaved heads and bulging biceps covered with tattooed Celtic imagery, stood calmly in a cage in the courtroom as they listened to the verdict. At a court session last week, Voevodin threatened the judge with "a horrible death," Gazeta.ru online newspaper reported.
Celtic crosses are popular among Russian neo-Nazis as substitutes for swastikas.
A handful of their supporters raised their right hands in a Nazi salute and yelled "Hail Russia! Hail heroes!" Some of them were holding small, hand-drawn pictures of Adolf Hitler.
Voevodin formed the gang in 2003 after most of the members of his previous group, the Mad Crowd, were arrested and charged with multiple killings and assaults. He ordered his followers not to name the gang, refrain from wearing Nazi and ultranationalist symbols and advertising their crimes — unlike other neo-Nazi groups that often posted videos of their attacks online.
In recent years, dozens of mostly underage neo-Nazis have stood trial and been convicted across Russia amid a surge in xenophobia and hate crimes triggered by the influx of labor migrants. Some average Russians and nationalist politicians accuse the migrants of stealing jobs and forming ethnic gangs.
Racially motivated attacks peaked in 2008, when 110 were killed and 487 wounded, independent human rights watchdog Sova said.
Since then, the number of hate crimes dwindled, but human rights groups say neo-Nazis are increasingly resorting to bombings and arson against police and government officials, whom they accuse of condoning the influx of illegal migrants. Ultranationalist groups have also stepped up attacks on human rights activists and anti-racist youth groups.
In early May, a member of an ultranationalist group got a life sentence for the Jan. 2009 killing of a human rights advocate and a journalist, his girlfriend and accomplice was sentenced to 18 years in jail.
In April 2010, a federal judge who presided over trials of White Wolves, a mostly teenage group of skinheads convicted of killing and assaulting non-Slavs, was gunned down contract-style outside his Moscow apartment.
Members of a neo-Nazi group accused of planning to blow up a mosque, a McDonald's restaurant and railway stations are currently standing trial in Moscow.
Neo-Nazis operate in small, semi-autonomous groups that coordinate their actions through Internet forums and coded messages, rights groups say.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow