MOSCOW, July 10 (JTA) — Jewish leaders here are viewing this week’s explosion of another booby-trapped anti-Semitic sign in Russia as further reason for a new hate crimes law in Russia. Authorities in the Siberian city of Tomsk were quick to declare the incident, which injured two people, an act of hooliganism, a relatively minor crime in Russia. But Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said authorities need to take acts of anti-Semitism more seriously. This act shows the need to turn a proposed hate crimes bill into law, Lazar said. Monday’s incident was at least the third involving a booby-trapped sign targeted at Jews in Russia in the past six weeks. Racially motivated attacks and skinhead violence have been on the rise across Russia in the last several years. Foreigners of Asian and African descent and people from southern parts of the former Soviet Union are primary targets of these attacks. Jewish institutions have also been frequent targets for vandals although violence against individual Jews is rare. The bill is being presented by the government as an important step in the ongoing international effort against terrorism. The new bill, which passed the upper house of Russia’s Parliament this week, should become law soon, after President Vladimir Putin approves it, which he is expected to do. But some liberals and members of Russia’s human rights community — and, ironically enough, some Communists — are wary that the bill might open the door for a crackdown on free speech. The most criticized part of the bill, the first such legislation in Russia, is its definition of extremism. It includes any actions that impede the functioning of the federal authorities by force or other illegal means. The bill also contains prohibitions on “extremist activity” and “extremist organizations,” which it defines as any organization so recognized by a court. If the bill becomes federal law, it will be the first time that Russia has outlawed the use of Nazi symbols and the bankrolling of extremist activities. The bill also includes other prohibitions already on the books in Russia, including a ban on the promotion of ethnic or religious hatred. Critics across the political spectrum say the often-vague wording of the bill could result in a clampdown on political dissent. Communists are particularly unhappy with one of the sections that includes a ban on “inciting any social animosity,” which they fear could be used to crack down on critics of the government. One of the most outspoken critics of the bill said it would only expand police power. Sergey Kovalev, a Duma deputy and a longtime human rights activist, said the “declared purpose of this bill has nothing to do with the real purpose” which he believes is cracking down on free speech. Kovalev and other critics contend that the bill’s definition of extremism could allow police to close down religious or human rights organizations, or even the Communist Party. They say it could also allow courts to hand down severe punishments for demonstrators at unsanctioned protests. Vladimir Pekhtin, leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction that supported the bill, argued that the state “must respond to violence with violence.” Critics argue that Russia already has sufficient laws to fight extremism and bigotry, and that rooting out intolerance in Russian society as a whole could be done more effectively by changing attitudes using education or the media. Given the vague language of the legislation, it comes as no surprise that representatives of law enforcement agencies who would be charged with enforcing the law are among those who expressed concern. One official at the Interior Ministry was quoted as saying the bill was “too abstract” and therefore unenforceable. But Jewish leaders say that most importantly, the new bill prioritizes the goal of fighting extremist activities, including anti-Semitism. Leonid Stonov, a Jewish and human rights leader in Russia, says he understands the fears of the human rights community about the new law. But the bill “can alert the Russian society to dangers of anti-Semitism and extremism, can send out a signal that the problem does exist,” he said. Provisions against hate-based crimes are included in the current Criminal Code and some other core laws. In reality, however, legal actions are rarely taken against suspects in hate crimes, and very few such cases have ended up in court. In its statement released in Moscow, the Anti-Defamation League welcomed the new anti-extremism legislation. The bill possesses the “potential to advance the fight against extremism and anti-Semitism into the forefront of governmental policy,” the statement said.
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