Misuse of Anti-Extremism in January - August 2016, in Brief
In the first eight months of 2016, as in the previous year, Russian anti-extremist legislation was actively used not only against radical opponents of the political regime, but also against the citizens, far removed from any radicalism, and, in some cases, it was clearly misapplied. These cases are a subject of the present overview.
There was still a high percentage of legal cases that involve anti-extremist articles in direct or indirect connection with the military activities in Ukraine, despite the fact that the conflict has passed the active phase. Remarkably, we have seen hardly any law enforcement incidents specifically related to the 2016 elections.
The “Yarovaya Package” was the only notable 2016 legislative initiative in our field of interest, but it attracted public attention to the extent not comparable with any previous anti-extremist amendment packages. The Yarovaya Package changes the situation in many ways. The most significant changes take place in three spheres.
The first area has to do with regulation of the Internet - the issue that caused the greatest public resonance. The amendments require all communication providers to store information on the fact of communication between people for one year, and the actual content of calls and correspondence for up to six months (this part will only enter into force in the summer of 2018). The amendments further demand that “the organizers of information dissemination on the Internet” provide the FSB with keys to decrypt the users’ correspondence under the threat of a fine, and that providers terminate contracts with subscribers upon request of law enforcement agencies, unless the user's identity is confirmed within 15 days (in cases of anonymous SIM-cards).
The second set of amendments substantially restricts missionary work, and has already been used most actively. The amendments, essentially, make it possible to issue a fine for any religious action, not authorized by an officially registered religious association. This section of the package was supposedly intended against Salafi preaching, but the wording has been taken from the old “anti-cult movement,” so that the first victims were the Protestants, the Hare Krishnas, etc.
The third one substantially toughens penalties for crimes of terrorism and extremism, as well as for organizing illegal migration. The age of criminal responsibility was lowered for a number of crimes (primarily of terrorist nature). The Criminal Code came to include such questionable offenses as failing to report a terrorism-related crime or encouraging organization of mass disorders. From our point of view, the prior law enforcement practice indicated no need for all these innovations, so there is little reason to think that they will be useful in fighting real threats.
The Yarovaya Package has already impacted right to freedom of conscience and protection of privacy in the country, but it is bound to affect other rights and freedoms as well.
Criminal prosecution is most serious form of fight against extremism, and, thus, an important focus of this report.
We believe that 5 wrongful convictions against 5 people were issued between the beginning of January and the end of August 2016 under Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred). Thus, housewife Ekaterina Vologzheninova, accused under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for inciting hatred and hostility against the authorities and “volunteers from Russia fighting on the side of the militias in Eastern Ukraine,” was convicted in February 2016. The prosecution was based on several posts shared via VKontakte social network. She was sentenced to 320 hours of mandatory labor with confiscation of her laptop.
In the period under review, charges under Article 282 against one person were dropped, and a few inappropriate prosecutions could be closed in the near future, but, on the other hand, about 15 new cases were initiated against approximately 20 people.
Two sentences under Article 354.1 (rehabilitation of Nazism), passed in the first eight months of 2016 are, in our opinion, inappropriate. Resident of Minusinsk G. Nazimov was sentenced to 10 months of correctional labor under Part 3 of this article for his social network post, interpreted by the law enforcement as an insult to the St. George ribbon (which, for the author, evidently, symbolized one of the parties in the Ukrainian conflict). Perm nationalist Vladimir Luzgin was fined 200 thousand rubles under Part 1 of the same article for the republication of articles that contained a debatable interpretation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as well as controversial statements relating to episodes of the history of the Bandera movement. We are unaware of the new cases inappropriately opened under this Criminal Code article during the reporting period.
Three inappropriate verdicts were issued under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for insulting the feelings of believers; four people were convicted, and one of them sent for mandatory psychiatric treatment. In particular, two people were sentenced to mandatory labor in the Kirov Region for hanging a homemade stuffed figure with an insulting inscription on a prayer cross in a local village. A new high-profile case under this article was opened (in our opinion, inappropriately) against the “Pokemon catcher” - atheist blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky.
One inappropriate conviction under Article 280 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity) was issued in the first half of 2016. Astrakhan nationalist Igor Stenin was sentenced under Part 2 of this article, to two years in a settlement colony for his post on a social network about the war in Ukraine. We view no new cases, initiated under this article in January-August 2016, as unequivocally illegal.
The convictions continue under Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code (incitement to separatism) against people, who had never called for the illegal actions with separatist intentions, but only spoken in favor of secession. Two people have been wrongfully convicted this way since the start of this year. Andrew Bubeev from Tver was sentenced to two years in a settlement colony under the aggregation of two criminal charges, but, in particular, for reposting Crimea-related articles by Boris Stomakhin. In Chelyabinsk, Alexey Moroshkin was sent for mandatory psychiatric treatment for posting a series of texts, which called for secession of the Ural region from Russia, on a social network. Additionally, two new criminal cases have been initiated: in Crimea, against Ilmi Umerov, the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, for his stance on joining the peninsula to Russia; and in Moscow, against journalist Andrey Piontkovsky for his article expressing the idea of possible secession of Chechnya.
Courts handed down no inappropriate verdicts under Article 282.1 of the Criminal Code (organization of an extremist community and participation in it) in the first half of 2016, and, as far as we know, opened no new unjustified cases under this article.
Only one wrongful conviction was recorded under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of an extremist organization or participation in such) in the 8 months under review. A Chelyabinsk court issued a suspended sentence of two years to Yakov Tselyuk for his involvement in Nurcular organization, which, in fact, does not exist in Russia. At least 3 new cases against 5 persons were opened under this article.
We would like to note separately (without including them in our overall statistics) 9 sentences against 24 followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who faced responsibility as members of a terrorist organization under Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code. We view these sentences as inappropriate, because we believe that this radical Islamist organization is not a terrorist group. Sentences in such have become increasingly severe; for example, two out of three Hizb ut-Tahrir followers, convicted in August in Saint Petersburg, received 17 and 16 years in a maximum security colony. At least 15 more such criminal cases (10 of them in Tatarstan) against at least 34 people were opened in January - August 2016.
One criminal case - against nationalist blogger Alexey Kungurov from Tyumen for publishing an article about the situation in Syria - was improperly opened under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code (public calls to terrorist activity or justification of terrorism).
No inappropriate sentences were issued under Article 213 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) or Article 214 (vandalism) aggravated by the hate motive in the first half of 2016, and no new charges were filed.
We can make a preliminary observation that, in comparison with 2015, the number of wrongful convictions and new cases under Articles 280 and 282.2 of the Criminal Code has gone down, but, at the same time, there has been some increase in cases under Article 148 Part 1.
Notably, almost the entire set of inappropriate convictions under anti-extremist articles now consists of the sentences for various “extremist statements.” If we compare their number with the total number of convictions for “extremist statements,” we see that the latter is growing so rapidly (we know of more than 170 people convicted in January-August), that the percentage of inappropriate sentences in this category has actually shrunk. On the other hand, an increasingly visible and significant percentage of the rapidly growing number of sentences for “mere words” were handed down for statements that ran contrary to the letter of the law, but posed no significant public hazard (more details in Russian).
Altogether, 12 inappropriate convictions against 13 people were issued under anti-extremist criminal code articles in January-August 2016; two of them were referred for mandatory psychiatric treatment. At the same time, we know of at least twenty criminal cases, initiated in this period without proper grounds, against nearly thirty people. Comparing these numbers with the corresponding numbers from 2015, we can say that the number of wrongful verdicts in 2016 is expected to stay below the 2015 level, since 2015 saw a slight decrease in the number of newly opened inappropriate criminal cases. However, this figure rose again in the current year, which precludes us from making optimistic forecasts.
Our data on the use of the articles of the Code of Administrative Offences, aimed at combating extremism, is far from complete. Nevertheless, abuse was predominantly associated with application of Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code as it relates to mass distribution of extremist materials or possession with intent to distribute. In the period under review, we recorded about twenty instances of fines under this article inappropriately levied on individuals or organizations. In addition, there were at least 12 inappropriate court decisions, issued from January to August under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code for propaganda or demonstration of extremist symbols.
In the period from January to August 2016, the Federal List of Banned Organizations added two Jehovah's Witnesses communities - in Belgorod and Stary Oskol - whose activities were inappropriately banned as extremist for no reason, other than charges of distributing literature, which, in turn, was prohibited without proper justification. The List also came to include inappropriate court rulings regarding elimination of Jehovah's Witnesses communities in Elista and Orel, and Mirmamed’s Mosque Muslim community in Chapaevsk of the Samara Region. The legal validity of the ban against the “Russians” Ethno-Political Association also causes substantial doubt, despite the undisputable fact of its members’ involvement in xenophobic propaganda.
Unwieldly and error-filled Federal List of Extremist Materials added 593 items between January and August 2016, approaching the total of 4000 numbered positions. About 15 items were included on this list inappropriately during this period.
The Unified Register of Banned Websites blocked by courts, and the List of Websites extrajudicially blocked by the Prosecutor General under Lugovoy’s Law (i.e. for calls to extremist activity or unauthorized public actions), are also growing rapidly. The former includes about 570 items - that is, the resources recognized as extremist - and added about fifty items during the period under review, including approximately ten inappropriately banned sites. The latter contains 650 items, representing particular web pages; it is growing faster and added about 350 points over the same period, with dozens of pages blocked inappropriately.
Religious materials, materials produced by the political opposition, articles by journalists, songs and poems, works by historians and many other items also face inappropriate bans.
The report has been prepared as part of the project, the implementation of which uses state support funds allocated as a grant in accordance with the Presidential Decree of April 1, 2015 No. 79-rp and on the basis of competition held by the Civil Dignity Movement (http://civildignity.ru).