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Incident with Booby-trapped Sign Spurs New Call for Action in Russia

June 3, 2002
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An incident in which a woman was severely injured after she tried to take down a booby-trapped anti-Semitic sign has shocked Russian Jews — and led to calls for law enforcement officials to take greater steps to curb extremism.

The May 27 incident, in which Tatyana Sapunova was badly burned and lost sight in an eye, “shows that with all this blah-blah-blah at the top about the freedom of the Jews, neo-Nazis are beginning to feel no less free — not only to write or yell anti-Jewish insults, but to kill,” Natasha Sliozberg, a Moscow high school teacher and a Jewish activist, told JTA.

The incident comes amid evidence of other extremist activity in Russia.

Last week, a neo-Nazi organized an “initiation night” in a forest near Moscow.

Hundreds of skinheads were reportedly gathered around bonfires holding burning torches and yelling: “Death to people from the Caucasus and Kikes,” “Russia for the Russians” and “Sieg Heil.”

Sapunova, a 28-year-old biophysicist, was driving her 4-year-old daughter and her mother a few miles from Moscow when she noticed a sign “Death to Kikes” hanging from a pole near the road.

She pulled over, walked to the sign and began to take it down. The sign, rigged with dynamite, blew up in her face, injuring not only Sapunova, but also her 55-year-old mother, Yelena.

The two victims do not identify themselves as Jews, althought one of Sapunova’s grandfathers was Jewish.

But both have been close to the Jewish community. Sapunova’s mother had worked for a foundation for blind Jews.

“Tatyana is strong, and, at the same time, a very well-meaning and ready-to-help person,” Galina Yevtushenko, who heads the foundation, told JTA. “She just could not have acted otherwise.”

Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, visited Sapunova in the hospital and promised that the Jewish community will pay her medical bills and if needed, send her to Israel for medical treatment.

According to a Russian security source, the blast was intended for Lazar himself.

The bomb was planted shortly before Lazar was scheduled to pass by the sign on the way back from the airport after meeting with President Bush in St. Petersburg, according to the source in Russia’s Federal Security Bureau.

But Lazar’s plane was late, and it was dark when he and his aides passed the sign, according to the source.

Russian and U.S. Jewish groups reacted to the incident by blasting Russian law enforcement agencies.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Moscow office director, Alexander Axelrod, issued a statement saying the incident was the inevitable result of the authorities’ refusal to crack down on hate crimes in Russia.

“Russian anti-Semitism has moved on to a new level — from anti-Semitic newspapers and swastikas on the walls to organized violence and terrorism,” Axelrod told JTA.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, also faulted Russian officials.

“Had the authorities taken seriously the threat of anti-Semitic terror on Russian territory, and had the Duma not stalled on adopting President Putin’s proposed legislation against political extremism, this crime may have been avoided,” said Satanovsky, who also criticized public indifference to the issue.

At least one Russian legislator, Pavel Krasheninnikov, agrees with Jewish leaders.

Krasheninnikov reacted to news of the booby-trapped sign by saying an anti-extremism bill should be passed before the current legislative session ends in July.

“We are behind Europe on this by 50 years,” he said.

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