MOSCOW – A leading Moscow university ordered its foreign students on Thursday to remain in their dormitories for the next three days because of fears of ethnic violence before Adolf Hitler's birthday this weekend, students said.
Hundreds of students at the prestigious Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy were told to stock up on food and warned they would not be let out of the dormitories through Saturday in an attempt to protect them amid a marked rise in hate crimes.
In the past, some members of ultra nationalist groups have marked Hitler's birthday with attacks on ethnic minorities.
"It is nice that the university is taking care of us, but on the other hand it's absurd that our freedom is being limited because of some militant groups," said Liah Ganeline, a second-year medical student from Israel.
"In a normal, democratic country the authorities don't obey the interests of these groups, but on the contrary protect people from them," she told The Associated Press by telephone.
Only practicing physicians in training were allowed to leave the building, she said, along with students who had signed a statement saying they were responsible for their own safety and had received approval from university officials. Others were given permission to miss classes.
Ganeline said authorities have locked down her dormitory in southern Moscow— which houses about 500 students from Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus — every April 21 for the past several years. She said officials call it a fire safety drill.
Ganeline said, however, that all students were aware of the real reason, and noted that someone had scrawled the word "skinheads" over an announcement of the lockdown posted on a dormitory wall. Last year, she said, a group of skinheads threw firebombs at the dormitory building after shouting offensive slogans and giving the Nazi salute.
Sergei Baranov, acting dean of the university's foreign students department, said the school was conducting emergency drills through Saturday. Asked why only foreign students were involved in the exercise, Baranov said the university was at the same time trying to protect students from possible violence. "We are trying to kill two birds with one stone — these days the danger of some incidents is higher."
Ganeline bought two cartons of milk, four containers of yogurt, apples, corn and rolls of toilet paper and prepared to spend the next three days isolated in the dorm with fellow students.
"It's horrible that this is happening," she said, referring to the rising xenophobic sentiments in Russia. She added that another university dormitory housing several hundred students in central Moscow was subject to similar restrictions.
In the past, Moscow authorities have closed down some outdoor markets, where many traders are dark-skinned foreigners, for several days before the anniversary of Hitler's birthday to avoid violence.
Russia has seen a marked rise in racism and xenophobia over the past several years, with nonwhite or dark-skinned residents, foreigners and Jews bearing the brunt of the violence.
According to the human rights center Sova, which monitors xenophobia, 53 people were killed in 2006 and 460 others were injured in apparent hate crimes.
Activists say authorities do little or nothing to combat the problem and that obvious hate crimes are regularly classified as mere hooliganism.
Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said authorities should do more to prosecute hate groups and protect foreign students rather than subject them to restrictions.
"The activity of radicals is significantly increasing," he said. "But the decisions of the university officials ... must not violate the freedom of movement of foreigners."