City Struggles to Outlaw Nationalist Organization

A city court case to ban the right-wing nationalist Russian National Unity dragged on after a vigorous defense team challenged the charges every step of the way Friday.

To reduce the risk of disruptions or even terrorist attacks, the court hearings, which began Thursday, are being held in the Severny settlement just northeast of Moscow.

The peaceful town with Stalinist resort architecture has been inundated with police, tucked in at every corner on the road to the local house of culture, which is serving as a makeshift courtroom. The hall was filled with silent men with shaved heads and clad in leather jackets, but there was speculation that at least some were undercover police rather than members of Russian National Unity, or RNE.

RNE is accused of engaging minors in political activities, spreading neo-Nazi literature and using fascist symbols, and organizing unauthorized rallies. The group also is charged with illegally opening branches in other regions in Russia.

Moscow city prosecutor Sergei Gerasimov has asked the court to look into the allegations and reconsider RNE's right to be registered as an organization.

RNE says the case is purely political.

"The charges against us are ungrounded and often absurd. We haven't violated any article of the Russian Constitution. Interest in the [group's] liquidation comes from some officials in the Moscow city government," RNE representative Alexei Panov said.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in recent months has pursued a campaign against RNE. He blocked it from holding a congress in the city in December, and after the group staged a march in northern Moscow on Jan. 31, the mayor's office criticized police for not dispersing the demonstrators.

"The prosecutor has clearly taken Luzhkov's side in his attitude toward RNE," said Oleg Kassin, another RNE representative.

The city expected the trial would wrap up the day it began, but it continued Friday as the four-member defense team challenged each point, while the prosecutor listened and said little.

At the end of the day the judge put off the verdict until Monday.

The group said part of the problem with the city's case is that it has not distinguished between the national party, headed by Alexander Barkashov; the Moscow city group; and the Moscow regional group, which was the one in court. None of the evidence presented by the prosecutors gave the group's name, using the word "party" instead, Panov said.

"You can't just ban an organization. There are interests of a large group of people behind it," he said.

RNE defended its January march, saying participants did not disrupt public order or carry any political banners with them.

The group also said the city had no right to object to RNE members and sympathizers giving out the newspaper Russky Poryadok, or Russian Order, on the street. The newspaper is printed by a unrelated organization and is officially registered, RNE said.

"They are balancing on the edge of the permissible and the illegal," said Yelena Filipchuk of the Moscow justice department. She said her department noticed legal violations by RNE a while ago, but waited to file a complaint because of a lack of factual evidence.

Filipchuk acknowledged that the process of banning an officially registered public organization is difficult.