Conviction on Hate Crimes Charges Seen As a Step Forward for Ukraine

A four-year prison sentence given to a Ukrainian skinhead is being heralded as a significant step toward tolerance and democracy in this former Soviet republic.

The criminal conviction of Dmitry Volkov by a Kiev-based court is said to be the first under the country’s hate-crime law since it was adopted by a newly independent Ukraine a decade ago.

Volkov, 27, was sentenced March 4 for his role in a widely publicized attack on the capital’s central Brodsky Synagogue last year.

“While Article 161 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code has been used in criminal cases against publishers of anti-Semitic newspapers and magazines, none of those cases has resulted in criminal conviction,”said Nickolai Butkevich of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

On April 13, 2002, some 50 young men leaving a soccer game at nearby Olympic Stadium turned their attention on Brodsky Synagogue, where evening prayers had just concluded.

Uttering cries of “Kill the Jews,” according to the chief rabbi of Kiev, Moshe-Reuven Azman, the youths hurled stones at the synagogue, breaking some 20 windows in the process. They proceeded to beat up a security guard, yeshiva rector Tsvi Kaplan as well as the rabbi’s own son, Yorik.

Most of the attackers fled by the time police arrived. Eight people were detained at the scene, but it was not until August that the authorities arrested Volkov in the city of Poltava, east of Kiev.

Azman and the Jewish community labeled the attack a pogrom, and it quickly received worldwide attention.

Community members, including Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, say the strategy of publicizing the episode was significant in forcing the authorities to take the matter seriously.

“We immediately held a press conference and announced that a pogrom had taken place,” Dolinsky said. “We made that statement despite the fact that the Interior Ministry had already tried to play down the attack as a simple act of hooliganism by a bunch of soccer fans.”

Dolinsky said Volkov’s conviction — as well as those of five other accomplices, who received suspended sentences — proves the community acted wisely.

“The decision serves as a clear warning to others who might be tempted to imitate such an attack or commit similar acts of violence against the Jewish community,” he said.

Aleksandr Shleyn, chairman of the International Anti-Fascist Committee, which helped represent the synagogue and community in court, agrees.

“Later this year, Kiev will be hosting an international congress dealing with issues of xenophobia and intolerance,” Shleyn said. “We want to be able to show that we can all live together in Ukraine, regardless of a person’s skin color or religion.”

Butkevich added that he hopes the case will serve as a precedent.

“We hope that this will serve as an example for law enforcement agencies and courts throughout the country, where official reactions to anti-Semitic incidents are not always adequate,” he said.

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