Misuse of Anti-Extremism in July-August 2017
On July 29, Vladimir Putin signed three bills previously approved by the parliament; we see all of them as questionable.
The new legislation includes a law allowing to revoke an earlier act on acquiring Russian citizenship for some of those convicted of extremist and terrorist crimes. Supposedly, the court verdict regarding such crimes proves that, at the time of obtaining citizenship, an applicant falsely claimed that s/he was committed to respect the Constitution and legislation. Meanwhile, it is quite obvious that criminal intent could have been formed at a later point. There is a reason to fear that the law will be used to revoke the citizenship of and subsequently deport some immigrants or residents of Crimea.
In accordance with the law on prohibiting the use of anonymizers and VPN services for access to websites blocked in Russia, the federal Law on Information was augmented with Article 15.8, which, in fact, requires that the providers support these access restrictions under the threat of sanctions such as blocking access to these providers (a new mechanism to combat the use of VPN and anonymizers is described in greater detail here).
New amendments to the law on the media introduce а ban on establishing media outlets for persons, who are deprived of their liberty, or have a criminal record for committing crimes using the media or the Internet or a criminal record “for committing crimes related to carrying out extremist activities.” We see no compelling reasons for introducing such restrictions. The amendments also allow Roskomnadzor to refuse permission to distribute a foreign periodical or to revoke such a permission, if the publication fails to comply with the article of the law on misuse of the media or with anti-extremist legislation in general. The text of the law does not specify the decision-making procedure, giving rise to concerns regarding the possibility of Roskomnadzor issuing inappropriate extra-judicial decisions that significantly restrict freedom of speech.
In mid-July, Deputies Sergei Boyarsky and Andrei Alshevskikh (United Russia) introduced in the State Duma a package of bills obligating the administrators of social networks to remove illegal content and imposing fines in the millions of rubles for failure to perform this duty. Under this law, the social network operators with more than two million users in Russia would be required to open representative offices on Russian territory to handle complaints on a 24-hour basis – despite the fact that all social networks already accept such complaints. The social networks will be required “to restrict access to or remove information, disseminated on a network, which is clearly aimed at promoting war or incitement to national, racial or religious hatred and enmity, is unreliable and (or) discredits the honor and dignity of another person or their reputation, or other information, dissemination of which entails criminal or administrative liability, based on a complaint from a social network user within one day from the receipt of the complaint.” According to the authors of the bill, copies of illegal content should also be deleted; meanwhile, the social network operators must store the deleted information on their servers for three months (evidently, for a possible investigation). Insufficiently fast consideration of a complaint (or consideration that Roskomnadzor finds less than satisfactory) may result in a large fine. Taking into account the fact that all social networks already have mechanisms for handling complaints and removing content, we can only acknowledge that the proposed mechanism is an instrument of state censorship.
Incitement to Ethnic Hatred
In July, the Leninsky District Court of Ufa began to consider the criminal case under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement to ethnic hatred) against activist of the Bashkir National Movement Sagit Ismagilov. He is accused of sharing a text on VKontakte, in which the author in harsh terms accused the Tatars of causing the collapse of the Bashkir culture. The text was accompanied by a photograph of a book page with the fragment from a 16th-century poem containing invectives against the Tatars of the Golden Horde. In our opinion, the works of the past centuries should not be evaluated for compliance with modern ideas of tolerance and, especially, with the legislation on extremism. Here we are in agreement with the relevant explanation recently issued by the Constitutional Court. As for the combination of the two texts in this case, it can indeed be interpreted as the statement aimed at humiliating dignity based on ethnicity. However, we believe that the humiliation of dignity should be moved from the Criminal Code to the Administrative Code, as an offense that does not pose significant danger to the society.
In August, the Vakhitovsky District Court of Kazan sentenced Danis Safargali, the leader of the Tatar Patriotic Front Altyn Urda (the Golden Horde) to three years of imprisonment in a minimum-security penal colony on charges of using violence (Articles 115, 116 and 213 of the Criminal Code) and inciting hatred (Article 282 of the Criminal Code). We consider Safargali's sentence under Article 282 (issued for 15 publications on VKontakte) at least partially inappropriate. The prosecution for the abasement of the Russian president, government agencies and the media is inappropriate, in our opinion, since none of the above categories should be considered a vulnerable social group protected by anti-extremist legislation (we believe that a vague concept of social group should generally be excluded from the Criminal Code). The charges against Safargali of incitement to ethnic and religious enmity also raise some doubts. Additional information about our position on this case can be found here.
Also in August, it was reported that a criminal case had been opened in Kazan under Article 282 of the Criminal Code against unidentified persons, based on the activity of the All-Tatar Social Center (Vsetatarsky obshchestvenny tsentr, VTOTs). The VTOTs has stated that the prosecution was triggered by a picket and a conference conducted by the Center and dedicated to the fate of the Tatar language as the second official language in Tatarstan. In the course of these events, a number of statements were made that were critical of the language policy in the republic, since the Tatar language was almost never used as an official language; various measures were proposed to maintain its status. In our opinion, the only statements related to the language status that should be regarded as hate speech, are that ones, which directly call for discrimination or other unlawful actions, and the organizers of both events evidently refrained from such statements.
The Maykop City Court discontinued the criminal case against ecologist Valery Brinikh in August due to absence of corpus delicti; he had been charged with complicity in incitement to ethnic hatred (Article 33 Part 5 and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) in connection with publishing an article on environmental pollution caused by a large pig farm. In his article “The Silence of the Lambs” the author accused the residents of the Adygean district, where the polluting enterprise was located, of subservience to the authorities and failure to actively defend their interests. The text was recognized as extremist in 2014. However, now, in connection with terminating the prosecution against Brinikh, the Prosecutor's Office of the Republic of Adygea went to court, at its own initiative, to overturn the ban against the article.
Prosecution for Inciting Religious Hatred and Insulting Religious Feelings
It was reported in July that the Omutninsky District Court of the Kirov region had sentenced a 21-year-old local resident to a fine of 25 thousand rubles under Article 148 Part 1of the Criminal Code (public actions aimed at insulting the feelings of believers) based on the fact that he “for the reasons of obvious disrespect to society, repeatedly publicly placed on a social network on the Internet photographic images with captions that offended the feelings of believers, thereby demonstrating his disdainful attitude towards them and religion” in 2015-2016. We regard prosecution under Article 148 of the Criminal Code for atheist statements as inappropriate. In our opinion, the vague concept of “insulting the feelings of believers” should be removed from the Criminal Code altogether.
The prosecution of Sochi resident Viktor Nochevnov was based on the fact of sharing a series of cartoon images of Jesus Christ on VKontakte. In August, the Central District Court of Sochi found him guilty under Article 148 Part 1 and sentenced him to a fine of 50 thousand rubles.
The criminal case under Article 282 Part 1 and Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code against the local resident Natalia Telegina for inciting ethnic hatred and insulting the feelings of believers went to court in Barnaul in July. Another similar case was initiated in August in Yoshkar-Ola.
In St. Petersburg, a criminal case related to atheist images against local resident Leonard Konvisher under Part 1 of Article 282 was initiated in July. The prosecution is based on a publication of three images, including two obscene pictures featuring Jesus Christ, in a VKontakte users group. In our opinion, Article 282 is applicable only to the third image, which approves violence against priests.
Prosecution against Jehovah's Witnesses
On July 17, the Appeals Board of the Supreme Court of Russia dismissed the appeal against the Supreme Court decision of April 20, 2017, which recognized the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia as an extremist organization and ordered its liquidation. In accordance with this decision, the Administrative Center and 395 local religious organizations, as its structural subdivisions, are subject to liquidation, and their property is subject to confiscation by the state. The court decision has entered into force, putting tens of thousands of adult Jehovah's Witnesses in jeopardy of facing criminal prosecution for their faith. Indeed, we found out in August that a criminal case under Article 282.2 part 1 of the Criminal Code (involvement in the activities of an extremist organization) had already been initiated against a resident of Kursk for distributing Jehovah's Witnesses leaflets at the marketplace. This is the first case based on the prohibition of the Jehovah's Witnesses' Administrative Center and their local communities, rather than the prior bans against particular local organizations.
A criminal case under Article 282 Part 1 was opened in August in the city of Maysky (Kabardino-Balkaria). According to the investigators, the suspect in the case –Yuri Zalipayev, the chairman of the local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses – had distributed the prohibited materials despite the prior prosecutorial warning.
The Moscow Regional Court for the second time upheld the acquittal by the Sergyiev Posad City Court in the case of two elders of the local Jehovah's Witnesses community in August. Vyacheslav Stepanov and Andrei Sivak were accused of incitement to religious hatred committed by an organized group (Article 282 Part 2 clause “c”); the accusations against them included quoting from the banned Jehovah's Witnesses brochures that contained negative characteristics of other religions, such as “traditional” Christianity and Christian clergy, and urged the readers to join Jehovah's Witnesses.
In August, the Vyborg City Court satisfied the claims of the prosecutor's office and recognized as extremist the Bible in the Jehovah's Witnesses translation (The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published in 2015) along with three brochures; this decision has not yet entered into force. The court decision was based on an ill-informed expert opinion. The experts, having no scruples about employing the most absurd and feeble arguments, claimed that the brochures contained the signs of inciting religious hatred, and that the Bible in the Jehovah's Witnesses translation was not really the Bible. We consider the Vyborg City Court decision unlawful and regard it as a dangerous precedent. The approach chosen by experts and the court's way of circumventing the law that prohibits recognition of the scriptures of the major religions as extremist opens the door to prohibiting other translations and paraphrases of the holy books in the future.
Prosecution against Muslims
As we found out in July, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan had increased the severity of the verdict, issued in March to the five followers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, based on the appeal by the prosecutor's office in late June. They all initially received suspended sentences under Article 282.2 on charges of involvement in the activities of the banned organization Nurcular. The Supreme Court decision replaced two of the sentences with real prison terms (one of four years, the other one of two years and three months), and lengthened the probationary period for the other three offenders. A case under Part 1 of Article 282.2 related to Nurcular recruitment was initiated in Pyatigorsk in August; the suspect has been put on the federal wanted list. We view the bans against Nursi’s books, as well as the prohibition against Nurcular (which never existed in Russia to begin with), as inappropriate.
In July, we were informed about two sentences handed down to the followers of the inappropriately banned peaceful religious movement Tablighi Jamaat. The Chekmagushevsky Inter-District Court of Bashkortostan found five Muslims guilty under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code in late June. Four of them were sentenced to various prison terms ranging from two and a half to four and a half years; the fifth received a suspended sentence of 2 years. In late July, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Barnaul sentenced a local resident to one year in prison under Part 1 of Article 282.2 for involving others in the activities of Tablighi Jamaat. Additionally, a case against four Muslims was opened in August in Bashkortostan; three of them were taken into custody, while the fourth one was put on the federal wanted list.
We continue to document the instances of harsh sentences faced by activists of the fundamentalist Hizb ut-Tahrir party, recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia. We regard the charges of terrorist activities, preparing a coup d’etat, and so on against Hizb ut-Tahrir followers based solely on their party advocacy as inappropriate, since Hizb ut-Tahrir is not involved in terrorist activities.
The North Caucasus District Military Court sentenced Dagestani public activist Khiramagomed Magomedov to nine years in a high-security prison colony in July. He was found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 2 (participation in the activities of a terrorist organization), Article 205.1 Part 1 (assistance in terrorist activities), Article 30 Part 1, Article 278 (preparation for the forcible seizure of power) and Article 222 Part 1 (illegal possession and carry of weapons; Magomedov denounced this charge as trumped-up).
Rinat Galiullin, convicted for organizing the Hizb ut-Tahrir cell in Chelyabinsk in 2013, was arrested in the Saratov Region, upon leaving the penal colony in July, on charges under Article 205.5 Part 2 for propaganda among the inmates.
In July, the Supreme Court of Russia increased the severity of the verdict imposed under Article 205.5 Part 2 and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code against four Hizb ut-Tahrir followers from Nizhnevartovsk. They were all sentenced in February by the Privolzhsky District Military Court to suspended sentences and fines and released in the courtroom, but the Prosecutor's Office challenged this decision. The Supreme Court sentenced them to real prison terms ranging from five to six years behind bars. At the same time, the Supreme Court also issued a harsher verdict to Crimean resident Ruslan Zeytullayev, found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 1 for organizing the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Zeytullaev’s prison term in the maximum security penal colony has been increased from 12 to 15 years.
Prosecution against the Political Opposition
In July, the Tverskoi District Court of Moscow issued a verdict to members of the Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (Za otvetstvennuyu vlast, IGPR “ZOV”), Yuri Mukhin, Valery Parfyonov, Alexander Sokolov and Kirill Barabash, who were found guilty under Part 1 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code for continuing the activities of the Army of People’s Will (Armiya Voli Naroda, AVN), banned as an extremist organization. Mukhin received a suspended sentence of 4 years with one year of restrictions on freedom and four years of probation; Sokolov was sentenced to 3 years and 6 months in a minimum-security penal colony; Parfyonov and Barabash – to 4 years in a penal colony. We believe that the AVN, an organization of the Stalinist-nationalist kind repeatedly implicated in xenophobic propaganda, was banned inappropriately, since this decision was based solely on the ban of the leaflet: You have elected — You are to judge! ("Ty izbral – tebe sudit"), which we regard as unfounded. Therefore, we also view prosecution for continuing the activities of the AVN as inappropriate.
In July-August, we learned about five cases of prosecution under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for demonstrating Nazi symbols not intended as propaganda of Nazism. In four out of five cases, the opposition activists from various regions of Russia faced prosecution for using Nazi symbols as visual means of criticizing the authorities. Notably, one case under this article (against the Center for Journalistic Investigations Medialix 64 in Saratov) has been dropped.
A Tolyatti court fined activist Sergei Ionov, an organizer of the protest action on June 12, under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass dissemination of extremist materials). His charges were based on his posting on VKontakte of the banned video Napomnim zhulikam i voram ikh manifest-2002 ("Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002"), which was recognized as extremist – inappropriately, in our opinion – in 2013.
In July, upon request of the Prosecutor General's Office, Roskomnadzor added the Free Ingria (Svobodnaya Ingriya, freeingria.org) website to the register of websites to be blocked for incitement to riots, extremist activities or to participation in mass events conducted in violation of the established procedures. From our point of view, the decision to block the website was unfounded, since the Free Ingria movement, which advocates the expansion of the autonomy for St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region and adheres to regionalist and even separatist views, did not call for violent actions in violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation or for riots on its website.