City Race Expert Murdered
A prominent expert on ethnic and racial issues was shot dead in his St. Petersburg apartment over the weekend in an attack that his colleagues and human rights advocates believe was carried out by extremists.
Nikolai Girenko, 64, was killed when he went to answer the doorbell in his apartment at about 9 a.m. Saturday, investigators said Monday. The killer fired a rifle at him through the closed door.
Minutes before the attack, neighbors saw two suspicious-looking men on the staircase of Girenko's apartment building, investigators said.
No suspects had been detained as of Monday.
Deputy St. Petersburg Prosecutor Andrei Zhukov said investigators believe Girenko was killed because of his work as a researcher and expert witness in a number of trials involving extremism.
Girenko assisted the city prosecutor's office in several high-profile court cases, including the 2002 murder of Azeri watermelon vendor Mamed Mamedov and an ongoing investigation of a local skinhead group known as Schultz-88.
Over the past two years he carried out about two dozen studies of neo-Nazi and skinhead groups for Moscow and St. Petersburg authorities. The work has helped lead to several convictions.
But Zhukov said Girenko's killing might have been an act of hooliganism - the charge that prosecutors tend to file against suspects in extremist attacks.
Girenko's colleagues and human rights advocates said they have no doubts that extremists were behind the attack.
"I simply do no see any other possible reason," said Girenko's boss, Yury Chistov, director of the St. Petersburg Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology. Girenko had worked at the center since 1970.
"Nikolai Mikhailovich was a scientist who combined his academic career with intensive public activities and dedicated considerable time to ethnic expertise, sometimes putting his own academic career on the back burner," Chistov said.
Chistov said that even though Girenko was an outspoken critic of neo-Nazi groups and had repeatedly warned that extremist attacks were on the rise, he did not usually get involved in criminal investigations and trials at his own initiative.
Often he participated only after receiving formal requests for assistance from prosecutors, he said.
Chistov, who knew Girenko for 30 years, said Girenko never mentioned receiving any threats. "He was a very quiet and modest person," he said.
Yury Vdovin, representative of the St. Petersburg office of the Citizens Watch human rights group and a friend of Girenko's, said the only enemies Girenko might have had were nationalistic-minded extremists.
"I have known the man for 15 years and, considering his professional interests, I can't help but blame nationalists for his murder," Vdovin said.
He said St. Petersburg authorities should also shoulder some of the blame. "They were able to carry out this vendetta largely because city authorities have long ignored the existence of skinheads and extremists in the city by portraying their activities as hooliganism," he said.
A group of Moscow-based human rights activists appealed Monday to the Prosecutor General's Office to take over the investigation of Girenko's murder from city prosecutors.
"We insist that the Russian authorities finally acknowledge the danger of the growth of neo-Nazism and xenophobia" and boost efforts to combat it, the group said in a statement.
But Prosecutor General's Office spokeswoman Yelena Antonova said her office had no plans to take over the case yet.
Alexander Vinnikov, a senior official at the St. Petersburg Union of Scientists, of which Girenko was a member, said Girenko was the country's leading expert on extremism in Russia.
Girenko is perhaps best known for developing a method of classifying ethnically motivated crimes, which he published in a book. "He began studying the issue back in 1986, when Nazi groups started to openly emerge," Vinnikov was quoted by Izvestia as saying. "Our police often tried to present Nazi crimes as hooliganism or regular crimes, and absence of a method of classification was their popular excuse for doing do. But Girenko co-authored a book that provided an important instrument for investigating such cases."
Olga Korshunova, Girenko's co-author on the book, said the book is now used by prosecutors and investigators alike.
"Given the peculiarities of our criminal legislation, which makes it extremely hard to investigate and explain the motive for a crime that is probably racially motivated, Girenko's contribution to such cases and their results were enormous," said Korshunova, who oversees the department specializing in prosecutor investigations at St. Petersburg Legal Institute.
Vyacheslav Sukhachev, a sociologist at St. Petersburg State University and a friend of Girenko's, told Izvestia that Girenko was deft at using logic to made convincing arguments in the courtroom. "I remember Nikolai Mikhailovich during trials. On the one side, aggressive, mad thugs. On the other side, a very calm and objective person who mockingly ignored frank boorishness and was always able to shut down a hysterical scandalmonger," he said.
In addition to worries about extremism, Girenko's murder raises another issue: the safety of witnesses and other participants in criminal investigations and trials. The State Duma has repeatedly rejected legislation providing safety to witnesses over the past decade.
There are about 50,000 skinheads in Russia, with about 1,500 living in each Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights. It said 20 to 30 people have died in extremist attacks per year in recent years, and the number of attacks is growing by 30 percent per year.