Court Outlaws Neo-Nazi Organization RNE

After three days of hearings, a court Monday outlawed the Moscow regional branch of the extreme nationalist group Russian National Unity, or RNE, ruling that it has violated federal laws and the constitution.

The withdrawal of RNE's registration with the Justice Ministry was seen as only a partial victory for the administration of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

The mayor has sought to curb the group's activities, but it was unclear how much the loss of registration would limit RNE's ability to function in Moscow.

"We don't lose anything except an extra headache," RNE spokesman Alexander Rashitsky said in a telephone interview. However, he said the group planned to appeal the verdict.

RNE, which describes itself as nationalist-socialist, uses symbols and salutes that are strongly reminiscent of German Nazis.

The charges against it included recruiting minors for political activities, passing out a neo-Nazi newspapers, organizing unauthorized rallies and illegally recruiting members in other regions of Russia.

RNE says it teaches teenage boys martial arts and Russian history, without involving them in political activity, and insists the newspaper it distributes, Russky Poryadov, or Russian Order, is officially registered.

Reading the verdict, Judge Marina Golubeva did not mention specific charges, but said RNE had violated the Constitution and several federal laws.

"The court decided to liquidate the Moscow regional branch of the RNE," Golubeva said in a makeshift courtroom set up in the House of Culture of the Severny settlement just northeast of Moscow.

City authorities held the hearings there rather than at the central Butyrsky district court, fearing protests from RNE members. Security was high in Severny, with police patrolling the town with dogs and searching everyone entering the courtroom for weapons.

Grim-looking RNE sympathizers in leather jackets filled the audience, and the atmosphere was tense. The four-member defense team argued each point vigorously and loudly, while deputy city prosecutor Yevgeny Manerkin and Yelena Filipchuk of the city justice department remained silent for the most part.

Rashitsky said the vagueness of the verdict indicated the weakness of the prosecution's case and that the court was under political pressure to ban RNE.The judge declined to comment on the verdict. A spokeswoman for the city prosecutor's office said it was too early to boast of a victory. "That we gathered enough grounds to come up with a court case is an achievement in itself," Svetlana Petrenko said.

The withdrawal of registration means the group will have to re-register its properties under different names and will not be able to submit requests for permission to hold rallies.

But even now, RNE acts through the legal facade of the Viktoria Club, the name of an RNE youth club in Terletsky Park on the eastern outskirts of Moscow, and several bodyguard agencies, said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank.

"If the authorities really want to cease RNE activity completely, they will have to shut down many more organizations," he said.

Pribylovsky, who specializes in Russian political extremism, said the mayor had ignored the activities of RNE and other extremist groups for a long time.

It was only after the anti-Semitic statements of RNE leader Alexander Barkashov and others started causing general alarm in Moscow that Luzhkov turned his attention to the group.

"Yury Mikhailovich has decided that his plans fit well with fighting against fascism. This way, he can please the democrats, the West, the Moscow intelligentsia, the Jewish lobby and what have you," Pribylovsky said.

Diederik Lohman of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office expressed concern that with few international and human rights organizations particularly interested in supporting extremist groups like RNE, the court may have acted without sufficient evidence to back up the city's charges.

He also questioned whether banning RNE was the best way for the city to handle the situation.

"If you ban such an organization, it will go underground. Then it will be much more difficult for the authorities to control them," Lohman said. "These people don't give up their convictions easily."

The Moscow group was one of RNE's 33 registered regional branches. The federal umbrella group, headed by Barkashov, has been denied registration.