Misuse of Anti-Extremism in February 2017
On February 22, 2017, Vladimir Putin approved amendments to the Administrative Code that provide for increasing the responsibility of Internet providers for failure to fulfill their obligations to block webpages on the basis of information received from the Roskomnadzor. A new Article 13.34 establishes the responsibility in the form of a fine: three to five thousand rubles for public officials, from 10 to 30 thousand for individual entrepreneurs, and 50 to 100 thousand rubles for legal entities. The adoption of this law is logically consistent with the preceding government measures to combat the spread of illicit materials online, and these measures were criticized more than once.
On February 10, the State Duma approved in the first reading draft amendments to the federal law On Mass Media, which, among other measures, provide for a ban on founding a media outlet for persons currently serving their sentences, or for persons with unexpunged or outstanding convictions for crimes against the constitutional order and security of the state or for grave or very grave crimes related to violation of the legislation on mass media or legislation on combating extremism. In addition, the amendments give Roskomnadzor the authority to deny permission to distribute foreign periodical printed publications or revoke such a permission, if a publication fails to comply with the chapter of the law on the misuse of mass media or with anti-extremist legislation in general. Our reasons for opposing this bill can be found here.
On February 14, Deputy Sergey Ivanov from the LDPR faction introduced in the State Duma a draft law proposing a modification of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity). The LDPR parlamentarians have repeatedly suggested to abolish Article 282 completely. The amendments, proposed by Ivanov, include augmentation of the existing parts of the Article 282 with a formula limiting their scope only to actions “which caused significant damage to the rights and legitimate interests of citizens or organizations or to the legally protected interests of society or the state, or other grave consequences.” At the same time, the proposal seeks to add the third part to Article 282 to cover “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority” and actions asserting the need to commit crimes “against a person or group of persons, on the grounds of their gender, race, ethnicity, language, origin, religious affiliation, or membership in a particular social group”, committed publicly, via mass media or on the Internet. Notably, the new part stipulates a more lenient punishment in the form of fines ranging from 100 to 300 thousand rubles, or the salary or other income for a period of one to two years, or losing the right to occupy certain positions or engage in certain activities for up to three years. The Russian government and the Supreme Court gave negative feedback on this bill. In our opinion, the anti-extremist legislation needs to be amended, and Ivanov's proposal to liberalize Article 282 could become a basis for discussion regarding gradual or partial decriminalization of acts, now covered by this article, even though the proposed mechanism has its drawbacks.
The Gorokhovetsky District Court of the Vladimir Region sentenced local resident Michael Pokalchuk to one year imprisonment with a probation period of 1 year under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code in late February. He was found guilty of incitement to hatred against the social group “anti-fascists”. The Court found that, on May 19, 2016, Pokalchuk, using a pseudonym, placed on VKontakte a video, “which contained signs of humiliation of human dignity and incitement to hatred or enmity on the grounds of belonging to a group of “anti-fascists.” We regard the verdict against Pokalchuk as inappropriate, since the anti-fascists are not a vulnerable group in need of protection by anti-extremist legislation. We also believe that the vague concept of “social group” should be altogether excluded from the Criminal Code.
It was reported in early February, that a criminal case under Part 1 of Article 282 was opened against a resident of Kursavka, a village in the Andropovsky District of the Stavropol Region. According to the investigators, in July 2016, in an unnamed store in Nevinnomyssk at night the suspect “used expressions against a woman passerby, aimed at humiliation along national lines, undermining trust and respect for nationalities other than his, inciting feelings of hostility toward her, and called for hostile actions of one group of people against another based on ethnicity.” We do not know exactly what expressions were used by the villager, but we believe that prosecuting him under Article 282 is inappropriate. It is unlikely that he verbally assaulted the woman in the presence of large audience, so his statement should not be considered public. In addition, the Investigative Committee report does not indicate whether the suspect called for violence, and, as for the humiliation of dignity, we stand in favor of excluding this element from the scope of Article 282, since it poses no serious public danger.
In early February, the Dzerzhinsky District Court of Saint Petersburg returned the criminal case of Dina Garina to the Central District Prosecutor to address numerous violations. She has been charged under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred based on origin or belonging to a social group). The case was initiated in connection with Garina’s March 2015 address to a rally, in which the ultra-right activist commented on the work of the staff of the Interior Ministry’s “E”-centers to Combat Extremism. Garina’s speech contained insults and racist statements, alleging a foreign (of other ethnicities, non-Russian, or mixed) ethnic origin of the “E”-centers’ employees, as well as their “genetic hatred” toward the Russians. However, taking into account the fact that the speech contained no calls for violence, it was unlikely to present significant public danger, and we question the utility of criminal prosecution for incitement to ethnic hatred. With regard to incitement to hatred against the employees of “E”-Centers as a social group, we view this charge as inappropriate, since, in our opinion, Article 282 exists to protect vulnerable groups, rather than law enforcement agencies, already protected by other Criminal Code articles.
The Chechen Republican Prosecutor's Office issued a message in mid-February, stating that a criminal case had been opened against a video-blogger Ilya Davydov (Maddison) under Article 282 Part 1 (humiliation of a person or a group of persons on the grounds of religious affiliation), based on the results of the audit by an investigator from the Investigative Committee, and a request to recognize the videos featuring Davydov’s performances as extremist is currently under consideration by the Zavodskoy District Court of Grozny. However, shortly after the publication, all reports on the criminal case against Maddison were removed from the official sites of the Republic without explanation, so that the development of this case is unknown. As reported by the Prosecutor's Office, Maddison’s video depicted actions and statements aimed at humiliation of the person or group of persons on the basis of their relationship to Islam and Christianity. The material in question is an excerpt from Davydov’s speech of 2012, which gained popularity in the early 2017. In the sketch, Maddison, using obscene language, tells how he had bought a Koran, went to the bathroom to read it, and could barely refrain from wiping his behind with it, but, in the end, he says that, in fact, he was talking about the Bible. After his video gained popularity in January 2017, Davydov started receiving numerous insults and threats, so he ended up deleting his social network accounts and leaving Russia. In the meantime, the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus initiated criminal proceedings against him for insulting the feelings of believers. We believe that there is no reason for criminal prosecution against the video-blogger. Additional information is provided here (in Russian).
It became known in early February that a criminal case under Article 148 Part 1 (insulting the feelings of believers) was opened against a 21-year-old resident of Belgorod. In May 2016, the suspect posted on her social network page a number of photos, in which she lights up a cigarette with a votive candle inside an Orthodox Church. According to the investigators, she has insulted the feelings of believers. We believe that the prosecution against the Belgorod resident is inappropriate. Although she violated the accepted rules of behavior in the church, her actions clearly attracted no attention of the believers present at the scene, caused no damage to the ecclesiastical objects, her social network account is clearly not addressed to religious audience, and, in any case, such photographs present no significant risk for the society.
In mid-February, the Promyshlenny District Magistrate Court of Stavropol dismissed due to the statute of limitations the criminal case against Viktor Krasnov charged under Article 148 Part 1 for his comments in the Overheard Stavropol (Podslushano Stavropol) group on VKontakte. A staunch atheist, he crudely expressed on the city online group his negative attitude to passages from the Bible, made fun of his opponent by stating “there’s no god” (intentionally misspelling the word “God”), then spoke in the same manner about Halloween. After that, two other participants in the conversation went to the police, and a criminal case was opened against him, based on the results of a comprehensive psycho-linguistic examination. In our opinion, Krasnov’s actions do not fall under Article 148 of the Criminal Code; we viewed the initiation of the proceedings against him as inappropriate and violating his right to freedom of conscience.
It became known in late February that the Volzhsky Military District Court, at its session in Nizhnevartovsk, delivered a verdict in yet another Hizb ut-Tahrir case. Four local residents were found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 2 (participation in the activities of a terrorist organization) and Article 282 Part 1 (incitement to hatred) and faced suspended sentences and fines. The length of suspended sentences was not specified; the fines are known to exceed 100 thousand rubles. Prior to sentencing, the four offenders were kept in custody; they were released in the courtroom. We would like to point out that, in recent years, those convicted under these articles for their “Hizb ut-Tahrir” affiliation received real, often long, prison terms.
Administrative Prosecution, Civil Litigation and Other Actions by the Authorities
In February, the Tsivilsky District Court of Chuvashia considered seven administrative cases under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code (public display of Nazi symbols) against Anton Kravchenko, a local activist of the Open Russia movement. He was fined 10 thousand rubles for posting seven videos with Nazi symbols on VKontakte. The activist published five of them in 2011, one in 2012, and another one in 2013. Reportedly, the videos included Pravoslavie po-diavolsky (Orthodoxy, Devil-Style), recognized as extremist in 2016, which contains footage from Mikhail Romm's Ordinary Fascism, a video with the footage of the Soviet troops entering Berlin, the humorous video “Hitler’s Address to Stalin” (an excerpt from Hitler's speech superimposed with the well-known rant by the hero of the movie Blood & Concrete in Yuri Gavrilov’s translation). We believe that Kravchenko published these videos not for the purpose of Nazi propaganda, and, therefore, the prosecution against him is inappropriate. Unfortunately, the Russian law punishes public demonstration of banned symbols without considering their context.
After a rally in memory of Boris Nemtsov in Perm, one of the event organizers, community activist Valentin Murzaev, was arrested. A report under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code was filed against him based on his 2014 social network post – a video that contained a frame depicting Nazi symbols. Murzaev said that he had no recollection of such a video, but that he could have only shown Nazi symbols in the anti-fascist context. The law enforcement authorities explained his detention by alleging that Murzaev had evaded meetings with the investigator. The Dzerzhinsky District Court fined Murzaev one thousand rubles.
A dealer in military antiques was sentenced to 5 days of arrest under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code in Sochi; he was found guilty of placing an ad on a website to advertise the sale of a German knife bearing symbols of the Third Reich. The knife was confiscated. As we see it, Article 20.3 should be applied not to the antique dealers, but to manufacturers of modern items with Nazi and neo-Nazi insignia and to distributors of such products. In addition, we believe that confiscation of the goods is not justified in such cases, since for a seller an antique item represents material value, rather than a propaganda instrument. Destruction of antiques after their confiscation is also unwarranted, since they represent historical value and can be transferred to a museum.
The Sovetsky District Court of Kazan has considered the administrative violation case under Article 20.3 Part 1 against two leaders of the FC Rubin fan club. One of them, Denis Bulatov, faced the court due to the video “When you overdid your Halloween costume” (available on VKontakte and on YouTube) found on his personal social network page. The video has the following content: a man dressed as an ISIS (organization banned in Russia) militant comes to a costume party and is angrily thrown out by the owner and other guests, including a man in a Hitler costume with a swastika on his sleeve. The case was dismissed, because the judge reasonably concluded that the video was humorous in its intent.
In February, Chuvash opposition activist Dmitry Semyonov was, once again, held liable under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code (mass distribution of extremist materials) for using the banned slogan “Orthodoxy or Death;” this time, the phrase in question was mentioned in a message by the Open Russia. We would like to remind that the Supreme Court of Chuvashia had rejected Semenov’s appeals. Semyonov had been fined a thousand rubles for sharing on VKontakte photos of the deputy Vitaly Milonov wearing a t-shirt with the inscription “Orthodoxy or Death,” and the same amount - for sharing a photo of Milonov wearing suit, but with a reference to the same slogan in the caption. After the court had dismissed Semyonov’s appeal, he shared on his social network page a message about it from the Team Open Russia page, which said: “If you remember, Semyonov was prosecuted for sharing a photo of Milonov with the slogan” Orthodoxy or Death,”” with the word “death” covered up. Semyonov said that he shared this message without any comments, and, thus, the administrative case was open for a mere description of the inscription on the t-shirt.
The same offence was incriminated to Dmitry Pankov, an activist of People's Freedom Party (PARNAS) in Chuvashia. He was accused of sharing on VKontakte the news from the online public board Lentach about the fact that the Novocheboksarsk City Court had dismissed his previous case under Article 20.29 for reposting the same captioned photo of Milonov. The banned slogan was mentioned, once again, in the news item he published about his court victory. Late in the month, Pankov was unable to enter Egypt, while on vacation. He was informed by Egyptian border guards that he was on the list of persons, banned from the country based on the information provided by the Russian authorities. If this is true, the Russian authorities have clearly misinformed the Egyptians.
The above-mentioned slogan was banned by Cheryomushkinsky District Court in 2010. It is popular among more aggressive representatives of certain Russian Orthodox organizations. Historically, however, it belongs to one of the Mount Athos monasteries, and is interpreted not as wishing death to non-Orthodox, but as a contrast between orthodoxy and spiritual death - “Either we are Orthodox or we spiritually die.” The vast majority of those using this slogan share this interpretation, so we believe that it was banned inappropriately. Prosecutions for mere references to it are particularly absurd.
The Polarny District Court of Murmansk Region fined Andrey Eliseyev, the Chairman of the Committee of Snezhnogorsk local Jehovah's Witnesses organization, under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code (possession of extremist materials for the purpose of mass distribution). The case was based on the fact of finding prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses religious literature in the course of inspection of the premises of the community prayer house; according to the report, it was seized and destroyed. It is possible that the incident in question is the one that took place in October 2016. The believers stated at that time that the banned pamphlets had been planted.
A local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Kislovodsk (the Stavropol Region) was fined 500 thousand rubles by the court decision under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for possession of extremist materials intended for mass distribution. This decision was made in late January. As in the case described above, the community was prosecuted in connection with banned materials (11 copies of the brochure “What Does the Bible Really Teach?”) discovered during a search of the prayer house. The community members also argued that the literature had been planted.
In February, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia adopted a decision regarding liquidation of the local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Cherkessk as extremist. The property of the community in the form of buildings and land will pass into state ownership. The decision was based on the fact that two members of the organization and the community itself had been fined under Article 20.29 for possession and distribution of two prohibited brochures. Their attempt to challenge the penalty failed. After that, the community received a warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity, however, according to the prosecutor's office, they continued to distribute the banned literature.
We would like to remind that we view prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses, banning their texts for extremism and liquidation of their communities as inappropriate actions and regard them as religious discrimination.
It was reported in February that a ruling, issued by Spassky district court of the Penza region in late January, had entered into force. In accordance with this ruling local resident Shamil Neverov - the imam of the mosque in the village of Tatarsky Sheldais and the imam muhtasib of the Spassky Vadinsky and Nizhnelomovsky Districts – was fined 2 thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code based on the fact that the prohibited book Tasawwuf by Osman Nuri Topbaş was found in the mosque during an inspection. In our opinion, the book was recognized as extremist inappropriately, since it contains no calls for aggression. Accordingly, prosecution for its distribution is inappropriate as well.