Misuse of Anti-Extremism in February 2016
The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of anti-extremist legislation in Russia in February 2016.
The Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs (FADN) developed an amendment to the law “On information,” which introduces a new short-term extrajudicial mechanism for blocking websites with information “containing incitement to or contributing to the escalation of ethnic or religious conflicts”. The bill was introduced for public discussion on February 11. The content of the bill can be found here. From our point of view, extrajudicial blocking leads to abuses by state authorities and encroaches upon freedom of speech. Obtaining emergency court orders for blocking Internet pages would have been a much more appropriate rapid response mechanism to deal with threats of ethnic and religious conflicts.
On February 17, the Civic Chamber Commission on Harmonization of Interethnic and Interreligious Relations conducted a “level-zero” reading of a new version of the Code of Administrative Offences. In the course of the discussion, it was proposed to introduce more stringent penalties for insults “motivated by religious and ethnic hatred,” for disorderly conduct “accompanied by violation of national and religious rights of citizens” and for the restricting the students’ rights to free education on religious grounds. Introducing the motives of national and religious hatred into the Administrative Code is, in our opinion, ill-advised. Proving such motives would require lengthy and costly expert examinations, inevitably leading to delays in resolving administrative cases. Since the Administrative Code has a statute of limitations, we can assume that either the police are not going to take the motives of hatred into account when making administrative offenses reports, or cases will not be properly investigated.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin called for introducing administrative responsibility for acts that offend patriotic feelings and symbols; the meeting participants supported his suggestion. The debaters also proposed to make damage to “objects related to moral and patriotic feelings of the citizens” punishable by a fine of up to 5 million rubles. The initiators of the proposal suggest that the authorities compile the list of such objects. It is worth noting that patriotism cannot be consistently defined as a legal category. If damage to “patriotic” objects is understood as desecration of memorial structures, then adequate punishments for such acts have already been provided in the applicable Criminal Code articles and desecration of state symbols is also already a criminal offense (Article 329).
In February, several news related to enforcement of anti-extremist legislation came from Yekaterinburg.
In the second half of the month, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Yekaterinburg found housewife Catherine Vologzheninova guilty of inciting hatred and hostility against the authorities and against “volunteers from Russia, who fight on the side of militia in Eastern Ukraine” (Part 1 of Article 282). She was sentenced to 320 hours of mandatory labor. The Court also decided that Vologzheninova’s laptop and her computer mouse were to be destroyed. Her prosecution was based on several posts she shared via the social network VKontakte. Law enforcement agents objected to her sharing the following materials: the poem Katsap by Anatoly Marushkevich, images stylized as World War II posters with the slogans “Stop the Infection” and “Death to Moscovite Invaders,” and three additional items (texts, varying in their degree of radicalism). “Katsap,” the poem with the message that ethnic Russians in Ukraine will be defending it from Russia, contains accusations of attacking Ukraine directed against the Russian authorities, but contains no calls for aggression. As for the posters, they obviously urge Ukrainian citizens to defend the country from occupation. The Vologzheninova case fits into a series of other recent similar prosecutions. From our point of view, the hostility of the authors of such posts and, likely, of those who share such posts, is related to a particular activity of a certain group of citizens, not on their ethnic, religious, gender or social identity, so these publications cannot be qualified under Article 282. In addition, prosecution for statements, addressed to citizens or authorities of another country, is of doubtful validity.
Late in the month, the Kirovsky District Court in Yekaterinburg found Semyon Tykman, a former teacher in Or Avner Jewish Gymnasium, guilty of inciting hatred under Part 1 Article 282. Tykman was sentenced to a fine of 200 thousand rubles and released from the penalty due to the statute of limitations. The case was opened due to claims, filed with the Prosecutor’s Office by the parents of two students, regarding Tykman’s extremist statements during his lessons on the Jewish tradition. According to the girls, in the winter of 2013, Tykman instructed them to spit in the direction of Orthodox churches, when walking past them, as he did; he also argued that all the Germans should be destroyed for what they did to the Jews during the Second World War.
The prosecution witnesses were very inconsistent during the trial, and the position of the prosecution revealed significant discrepancies. As a result, the only evidence against Tykman consisted of the protocols of the FSB interviewing two underage girls, whose reliability was questionable, since these the two texts were almost identical. Tykman has never admitted his guilt and expressed his readiness to appeal his sentence all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights.
At the same time, the Yekaterinburg City Prosecutor's Office forwarded to the same Kirovsky District Court a case on insulting the feelings of believers. The criminal case under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (public actions, expressing clear disrespect for society and committed to insult the religious feelings of believers) was opened against the “Master of Voodoo Magic,” Yekaterinburg resident Anton Simakov. In October 2014, he performed a ritual in his office; according to him the purpose of the ceremony was to magically influence the Ukrainian authorities. The ritual involved the following objects: a voodoo doll (made of clay or modeling clay), a funeral pall, а band usually put on the forehead of the dead in churches, a printed copy of the prayer read during church funeral services, a small wooden cross and a rooster, as a sacrificial animal, whose blood the “Master of Magic” sprinkled on the above-listed items. All of this was captured on camera and found its way online. The Prosecutor's Office approved the court’s decision of “applying of compulsory medical measures in the form of treatment in a psychiatric hospital.” We do not see how the actions, performed by the “Master of Voodoo Magic” constitute a crime under Article 148. He wasn’t motivated by desire to offend Christian symbols - he only used them for his own ceremony.
In mid-February, it became known that the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation conducted an investigation based on the fact of publication of an article “The Bomb Ready to Explode” by Andrey Piontkovsky on the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station. According to the prosecutors, the material contains the signs of incitement to actions aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity, as well as information, “inciting hatred and enmity or humiliating a group of persons based on their ethnicity and origin.” The investigation materials were forwarded to the FSB in order to address the issue of the prosecution against the author of the article and the Echo of Moscow radio station staff responsible for its publication. “The Bomb Ready to Explode” was published in January in Piontkovsky’s blog on the Echo of Moscow website. It focused on the crisis in relations between the Russian and the Chechen peoples. Initially, the last words of the article had stated that Chechnya should be granted full independence in order to avoid disaster, but, at some point after the publication, these words were removed. In late January, the parliament of Chechnya requested that the Prosecutor General and the Investigative Committee conduct an inquiry into the publication and bring the author and Echo of Moscow to responsibility; then State Duma Deputy Shamsail Saraliev addressed the same request to the same agencies, and was supported by 30 parliament members. Head of the Security Committee Irina Yarovaya issued a similar request. In our view, incitement to violent separatism merits prosecution, but Piontkovsky’s article contained no such incitement. We also found no statements, which incite hatred on ethnic grounds, in the text. Later, it was reported that Piontkovsky has left Russia after learning of a possible criminal prosecution.
In February, a number of sentences related to involvement in the activities of Islamic religious and political party Hizb ut-Tahrir were issued in several Russian regions. The Moscow District Military Court at its visiting session in Chelyabinsk found five Muslim local residents guilty under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 282.2 (organization of and participation in an extremist organization), Parts 1 and 2 of Article 205.5 (organization of and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization), Part 1 Article 30 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code (preparation for the violent seizure or violent retention of power). According to the investigators, the defendants organized a structural unit of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Chelyabinsk in 2013, headed by Salavat Khabirov; they held meetings, studied literature of the organization and recruited new members. The court issued an unprecedentedly harsh verdict by sentencing Salavat Khabirov to 17 years in a maximum security penal colony and to 1.5 years of restraint of liberty, Alfred Shaimov – to 16 years in a maximum security penal colony and 1.5 years of restraint of liberty, Radik Kabirov – to 6 years in a maximum security penal colony. Rinat Shamsutdinov and Orifdzhan Mirov were each sentenced to 5.5 years in a maximum security penal colony and a year of restraint of liberty.
A court in the Samara Region found Nail Kiyametdinov guilty under Part 2 of Article 205.5 because, according to investigators, he was involved in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities and involved other people in the organization in 2012-2014. Kiyametdinov was sentenced to 4 years and 4 months' imprisonment in a penal colony.
The North Caucasus District Military Court delivered its verdict in the case of residents of Dagestan Shamil Ramazanov and Umar Nikiforov and Kyrgyz citizen Kazimzhan Sheraliev, who were charged under Article 205.5 Part 1, Article 282.2 Part 1, Article 30 Part 1 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code. Ramazanov and Nikiforov were also been charged under Part 1 of Article 222 (trafficking in weapons). Ramazanov was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security penal colony; Nikiforov and Sheraliev got six years each. The investigation alleges that, in 2008, Ramazanov organized a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, while Nikiforov and Sheraliev participated in its work.
FSB officers in the Crimea raided the homes of the Crimean Tatars in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Kholmovka, Victorovka, Kutuzovka and Krasnokamenka in mid-February. The searches were carried out by armed men in masks, who broke down doors and windows. Lawyers weren’t allowed to enter the houses, and their inhabitants were forbidden to talk on the phone in their native language. Twelve people were detained and questioned. The court sanctioned the arrest of four of them - Enver Bekirov, Emir-Huseyn Kuku, Vadim Siruk and Muslim Aliev; the others were released after questioning.
In late February, a court in Makhachkala changed pre-trial restrictions from the house arrest to detention for Mukhammad (Khiramagomed) Magomedov, an activist of the League of the Just (Soyuz Spravedlivykh) detained in May 2015. Magomedov was charged under Article 222, Article 282 and Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code for his Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. The FSB Directorate insisted on changing the pre-trial restrictions.
As you may remember, we view the practice of charging Hizb ut-Tahrir followers with violent anti-government conspiracy, based solely on their party activities (meetings, reading the literature, and so on), as inappropriate. In addition, the ban against this party as a terrorist organization was, in our opinion, unjustified; thus the charges against its members under Article 205.5 are inappropriate as well.
In February, one of the most consistent fighters against Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia theologian Rais Suleimanov from Kazan was called in for questioning on charges of extremism. The Tatarstan Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee of Russia announced that a criminal case was opened against him under Article 282 Part 2 Paragraph B (actions aimed at inciting hatred or hostility, committed with the use of official position). His apartment and his mother's apartment were searched. The law enforcement objected to the materials published by Suleimanov - an expert of the Institute of National Strategy - on VKontakte, Facebook and a number of other sites. The decision to open criminal proceedings stated that the, from 2011 to 2016, the expert published materials that testify to “the alleged presence of underground radical Islamist gangs and active groups of ethnic separatist in the Republic of Tatarstan and support, shown to them by a large number of Muslims and Tatars and by the clergy and some officials of the republic” and also spoke of ongoing “mass persecution” against Russian residents of Tatarstan and the “propaganda of the Tatar national exclusiveness” in the republic. All of this could “provoke incitement to hatred and enmity between people of different beliefs, worldviews and interests,” and “growing social tension in the society.” We do not know what specific publications by Suleimanov were the grounds for criminal charges. Estimating the popularity of the radical currents of Islam in Tatarstan and criticism against the ethnic policy of the republic's leadership, in and of itself, cannot be considered extremist statements, and prosecution for expressing opinions on these topics can be regarded as an attack against freedom of speech. At the same time, as we noted earlier, certain statements by Suleimanov really have a potential to stir up hatred against peaceful representatives of “non-traditional” religious movements. In this regard, we find it difficult to assess the appropriateness of his prosecution.
In February, we learned that two people faced responsibility under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for the distribution of inappropriately banned materials or for possession with intent to distribute. The heads of the Jehovah's Witnesses communities in Arkhangelsk (in late January) and in Kaluga were charged with distribution of prohibited materials of a religious organization. One legal entity, IK-10 penal colony in Ulyanovsk, where two inappropriately prohibited religious books were found in the mosque, faced similar charges.
In late January, it became known that administrative proceedings under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code (promotion or display of Nazi symbols) were initiated against Aleksandr Tokarev, the chief editor of the local Communist Party newspaper Astrakhanskaya Pravda.
The charges stemmed from an image used to illustrate the statement by Gennady Zyuganov on the banning of the Communist Party of Ukraine, published in the December 2015. The image depicted a boot, decorated with the hammer and sickle, trampling a man in the Nazi uniform with a swastika on his sleeve, who resembled Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The Astrakhanskaya Pravda republished the statement, along with the illustration, from the Communist Party website. Obviously, in this case, the authors of the image and the publication never intended to propagate Nazism, but instead used the Nazi symbols polemically, accusing their Ukrainian political opponents of holding Nazi views. We believe that the provisions of the Russian legislation that allow for punishing any display of Nazi and extremist symbols regardless of the presence or absence of the propaganda context, should be reviewed.
Organizations and Materials Banned as Extremist
In mid-February, the Belgorod Regional Court liquidated the two Jehovah's Witnesses organizations at once - in Belgorod and in Stary Oskol. Both decisions will be appealed in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. In addition, the leaders of Kaluga and Vilyuchinsk communities received warnings about impermissibility of violating the law. We would like to reiterate that we view persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and bans against their literature and communities as religious discrimination. However, this trend continues to grow. A claim was filed with the Vyborg City Court in February to recognize Sacred Scripture in the New World Translation (2007) - that is, the Bible translated into Russian by Jehovah's Witnesses, many copies of which were seized by customs at the border with Finland in July 2015 – as extremist. Jehovah's Witnesses were not informed about the case and not given a chance to participate in it as an interested party; however, they intend to pursue such a right. We know nothing about the reasoning, provided by the claim, but we don’t find any signs of extremism in the New World Translation.
In mid-February, the Prosecutor's Office of Crimea filed a claim with the Supreme Court of the Crimean Republic asking for a ban against the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People in connection with its extremist activity. The claim listed a number of statements and actions by the leaders and members of the Mejlis regarded as extremist by the Prosecutor's Office. From our point of view, the prosecutorial claim has been insufficiently substantiated. More information regarding our position on this issue can be found here.
Finally, we note a few high-profile Internet access restrictions that took place over the past month.
In early February, Roskomnadzor added a YouTube page with Pavel Bardin’s movie Russia 88 to the list of banned websites, and thus blocked it on the territory of Russia. This is a 2009 movie about neo-Nazis, it is anti-fascist in its ideology, was shown in Russia and received various cinematic prizes. The decision to block it was issued by the Naryan-Mar City Court of the Nenets Autonomous District, based on a claim from the local prosecutor's office. In 2012, the Leninsky District Court of Kemerovo banned a xenophobic video created from selected scenes from Bardin’s movie. The Naryan-Mar Prosecutor asked the court to block the banned video, posted on YouTube and Yapfiles.ru as well as on VKontakte; he also demanded that the entire movie be blocked as containing fragments of the extremist video. The court satisfied the claim. As usual, the filmmakers were not involved in the process. Restrictions against the movie caused a noticeable media resonance. Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky responded with the following statement: “The court found not the entire movie, but only its fragment, to be extremist, but we are unable to only block selected fragments.” However, Roskomnadzor removed restrictions on access to the picture in the evening of the same day and appealed to the Prosecutor General's Office arguing that the Naryan-Mar Court verdict was inappropriate. The Prosecutor General's Office agreed with these arguments, and, as a result, the decision to block the material has been canceled. The mechanism, used by the Prosecutor General's Office to allow Roskomnadzor not to execute the court decision, is not known.
In mid-February, it became known that the Anapa City Court issued a decision on blocking several anonymizer sites. Earlier, the Prosecutor's Office, acting via the Anapa City Court, had restricted access to NoBlock anonymizer, as well as to the website of Roskomsvoboda project, which posted the information about the ways to bypass the restrictions. To avoid being blocked, Roskomsvoboda had to remove relevant information from their pages. However, the site administrators elegantly resolved the situation by replacing the content of the banned pages with the scanned resolution of the Ministry of Communications, which also listed the means of bypassing restrictions. We would like to remind that the Anapa prosecutors and the court justify restrictions against anonymizers arguing that they could be used to access websites of extremist nature. However, anonymizers per se contain no prohibited information and therefore cannot be legally banned. The same extremist materials may be accessed equally well via other tools, including regular search engines, since banned content still cannot be fully removed from the global network. However, such a possibility cannot serve as the reason for blocking access to search engines.