updated 12/15/2008 3:50:49 PM ET 2008-12-15T20:50:49

Seven young men who murdered 19 people in a series of hate crimes were sentenced to prison Monday amid a surge in racist assaults, xenophobia and neo-Nazism in Russia.

Fears of an explosion in violent racism were further heightened earlier this month with the gruesome beheading of a Tajik migrant worker near Moscow.

Prosecutors charged that the group sentenced Monday preyed on Central Asians, Caucasians and other non-Slavs with distinctly dark skin or Asian features, attacking them on the streets and in pedestrian tunnels with hammers and other weapons. The group videotaped many of the attacks and posted the clips online.

Moscow City Court spokeswoman Anna Usachyova said the court sentenced the group's leaders, Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, to 10 years — the maximum possible term since they were minors at the time of the attacks in 2006 and 2007. Another man was sentenced to 20 years, and four others to between six to 12 years.

Most of the group — some of whom were teenagers when the attacks occurred — stood handcuffed in a glass courtroom cage and showed little emotion when the sentences were read; one of the men smiled and another made an obscene gesture to TV cameras.

The court convicted the group Dec. 2.

Hate crimes on the rise
Hate-crime attacks are on the rise in Russia, according to rights groups. The Moscow Bureau of Human Rights estimated there were 110 xenophobic murders in Russia this year alone, compared to 74 last year. Sova, a group that tracks hate crimes, said at least 85 people have been killed in racist incidents in 2008.

The situation has worsened in and around Moscow, where 52 racist murders have occurred so far this year, according to Simon Charny, of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights.

As Russia's economy has slowed and unemployment has jumped, xenophobic groups have stepped up their campaigns, lashing out at foreign workers from ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia's poor North Caucasus, many of whom work in construction and other low-paying jobs.

In recent weeks, two Tajik men were attacked in a town north of Moscow; one of them was beheaded. Russian media reported his head was found 12 miles away and that an obscure nationalist group claimed responsibility.

On Sunday, an 18-year-old Kazakh student was found stabbed to death near his Moscow dormitory, city police said.

Earlier this month, assailants attacked an 18-year-old African-American exchange student in the southern city of Volgograd, leaving him in critical condition.

Rights groups say authorities have done little to stem the surge in racist incidents, and prosecutors are quick to classify such attacks as lesser crimes. But authorities claim they are stepping up their efforts.

Charny said the police's efforts are neither consistent nor sufficient.

Defense lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky said the racial killings reflect the state of ethnic relations in Russian society.

"I hope that people will draw the right conclusions from this verdict — that punitive measures should be combined with educational measures," Agranovsky said.

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