The SOVA Center's Talking Points for the EU/Russian Federation Human Rights Consultations
On May 25-26, 2009, in Brussels, the SOVA Center, as a part of a group of Russian human rights NGOs, participated in the EU/Russian Federation human rights consultations. We publish the talking points of the SOVA Center representative.
Racist violence continues to be an acute problem, particularly in Moscow. As in the previous year, the January of 2009 was marked by an increased number of attacks in Moscow evidencing the existence of a well-organized network of violent racist groups. In 2008, a total of 97 people were killed in racist and neo-Nazi attacks, as compared to 85 in 2007. Between January and April 2009, we have already documented 23 killings. Targets are usually chosen pretty randomly among people looking "foreign." Most victims are natives of Central Asia: 30 were killed in 2007, 49 in 2008, and 14 in the first few months of 2009.
We have noted an increased use of explosives, including against religious buildings. In 2008, we documented at least 19 attempted or completed arson attacks and blast attacks against religious buildings (in 2007 there were four attacks). In fact, of the 86 acts of vandalism reported in 2008, where the hate motive was evident, 58 attacks were against religious buildings (however, we do not see any significant changes over time: in 2007 there were 88 attacks, 64 of them linked to religious intolerance). Traditionally, most attacks are against Jewish sites (24 incidents as compared to 30 in 2007), followed by Orthodox Christian buildings (19 vs. 6 in 2007), and six each against Muslims and Protestants of various denominations (7 and 16, respectively, in 2007).
Neo-Nazi attacks have never been limited to ethnic aliens, since they are sometimes directed at ideological opponents. Recently we have observed an increase of public and private threats against civil society activists (including the SOVA Center) and authorities. In December, a neo-Nazi group killed and decapitated a Tajik migrant worker and placed the head outside a municipal building in Moscow demanding that all immigrant workers should be deported under threat of violence against the municipal officials.
In April 2009, another group encouraged radical nationalists specifically to attack police on 5 May. No massive attacks were reported, but bottles with inflammable liquid were thrown at police stations in Nizhny Novgorod and Cheboksary. The day before, police and some NGOs (including SOVA) in Moscow received a warning about a time bomb allegedly planted somewhere in the city (there was no explosion though).
The scale of rallies and marches organized by radical nationalists did not increase as compared to 2007, and even slightly decreased.
The growth of xenophobia in Russia is fueled by the rhetoric of certain law enforcement officials and the mass media, and also by the activity of pro-governmental youth movements. The war in Georgia definitely contributed to ethnic xenophobia, even though we should emphasize that the authorities had made every effort to prevent the military confrontation from growing into a massive campaign against ethnic Georgians.
It should be noted that many people in the government are xenophobic in various ways and manifest their xenophobia in the course of their official duties. For example, the Police University in St. Petersburg approved and adopted an explicitly antisemitic textbook of contemporary Russian history. The textbook was banned from classrooms after a high-profile scandal necessitating an intervention from President Medvedev.
Along the same lines one can mention a new Expert Council on Religions appointed by the Ministry of Justice in April 2009. Hardly any academics with relevant expertise sit on the council, which mostly includes people known for their prejudice against certain religious minorities. The Council is chaired by infamous "antisectarian expert" Alexander Dvorkin.
The new trend has been particularly visible since the autumn of 2008, as Russia becomes increasingly affected by the global economic crisis. The anti-immigration propaganda has expanded dramatically, and false reports are being spread of allegedly soaring rates of crimes committed by immigrants. The United Russia Young Guard, i.e. the most official of the pro-Kremlin youth movements, have staged numerous anti-immigrant pickets in Russian cities, and the slogans carried by pro-Kremlin youth were virtually the same as those used by the radical nationalist Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).
At the same time, we continue to observe a crisis faced by recently active radical nationalist groups. A split is growing in DPNI (the group's leader Alexander Belov has submitted a letter of resignation), the National-Socialist Society has virtually been destroyed by a series of splits, the National Imperial Party keeps a low profile after resignation of its leader A. Sevastyanov, the Popular Union gave up its status of a political party, and the "Great Russia" is hardly noticeable. Active members leave these groups (which over the past couple of years have acted in a sort of opposition to the government) to join other groups, which are no less racist, but show loyalty to the authorities and cooperate with pro-Kremlin youth movements like the Young Russia. Informal alliances created as a result include a wide range of people from the State Duma MPs to open neo-Nazi.
On the other hand, the year 2008 was also marked by more numerous anti-xenophobic statements of top government officials, and by a notable increase of criminal convictions for violent hate crimes from 23 to 33, matching the 2006 achievement. Eight more sentences were passed between January and April 2009. The success of law enforcement agencies in Moscow in particular should be mentioned.
However, by our estimates, the number of actual crimes continue to exceed the number of convictions about twentyfold; insufficient prosecution is the reason why the growth of racist violence has not been stopped yet.
Moreover, we have noted before that most convictions are for propaganda, including minor offenses, rather than for violent crimes. The reason is that the legislation and the law enforcement reporting, instead of focusing on violent hate crimes, refer to a much broader, arbitrarily interpreted, category of "extremist crimes."
The Ministry of Interior was reorganized in autumn, and a new Department for Counteraction to Extremism (with regional branches) was set up as part of its most professional subdivision, the Office for Organized Crime Control. Even though the new task force is not focused specifically on violent crime and aggressive racism, one would expect improved enforcement performance in the future. No positive difference has been observed yet due to the usual challenges of reorganization. Apparently, the staff of the new department will require some specialist training.
A major issue with inappropriate enforcement of anti-extremist legislation is that unfounded decisions, once taken, may have serious adverse consequence ostensibly consistent with the law.
Criminal prosecutions of Hizb ut-Tahrir members are the most obvious example. According to the FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, a total of 23 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists were convicted in Russia in 2008. Human rights activists are not aware of details in some of the cases, but generally their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir is the only charge brought against such people (art. 282-2 of the Criminal Code).
Members of the National Bolshevik Party have faced prosecution under the same article 282-2, following a clearly unfounded ban of the party as extremist in 2008. So far, just four NBP activists have been convicted, and in both cases charges under 282-2 were not the single reason for their prosecution (the activists were also charged with minor violations of public order), and two prison sentences were not probational. A few NBP cases are currently under investigation.
Agreements of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) also present a problem. They enabled numerous deportations to countries of Central Asia - the people deported were suspected of Islamist extremism by authorities of their home countries, and SCO members have agreed to recognize, without any investigation, other member countries' definitions of extremism with regard of their own citizens.
Generally speaking, the trends of unfounded anti-extremist enforcement, reported earlier, continued between October 2008 and April 2009.
Specifically, the anti-extremist law continued to be used against freedom of conscience.
In February, the trial of the Banned Art 2006 case was postponed, and the exhibition organizers clearly face blasphemy charges disguised as charges of extremism. No judgment has yet been pronounced in the Southern Park cartoon case, where the court is expected to decide whether or not the American cartoon should be banned for showing Prophet Mohammad.
A criminal investigation into Jehovah's Witnesses' dissemination of their usual religious texts is underway.
The prosecution (in particular, in Yekaterinburg) is based solely on an expert opinion stating that their faith contradicts Orthodox Christianity. Witnesses come under pressure in other regions as well.
The first book banned in Russia under the anti-extremist law was the Fundamentals of Tawheed written by the founder of Wahhabism in the 18th century. Even though certain followers of Wahhabism have committed crimes in today's Russia, the ban of this ancient book was clearly against common sense (even though it may have been consistent with the vague definition of extremism in the law). In April 2008, imam Said Baiburin was convicted in Ufa under art. 280 of the Criminal Code (appeals to extremist activity) just for promoting this book and sentenced to 18 months of prison; having served one year in pre-trial detention, he was released on 14 November and unlawfully deported right away to Kazakhstan, his country of citizenship.
On 10 April 2008, the Russian Supreme Court found Nurdjular, an organization of Said Nursi's followers, to be extremist - even though radical groups calling themselves Nurdjular are not present in Russia.
On 7 May 2009, a similar judgment was passed with regard to Tablighi Jamaat, an organization of travelling priests of "pure Islam," even though no one has yet shown any proof - either in Russia or elsewhere - that the organization is linked to violent groups.
It was revealed in late 2008 that on 26 August authorities in Krasnodar Krai banned four materials issued by Falun Gong upon finding them extremist; these included: the Russian translation of a treatise about Falun Gong belief and practice; two newsletters, and the Russian translation of a report by Canadian human rights investigators about organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China. The materials were banned for alleging superiority of their faith, being hostile towards the Chinese authorities, and using solar symbols.
On 28 April 2009, the Supreme Court of Marii El Republic passed a final judgment finding the brochure The Priest Speaks extremist for reasons such as criticism of other religions and Marii El authorities.
The rapidly growing Federal Banned List of Extremist Materials, the poor quality of judgments underlying the bans, and the fact that it is virtually impossible to appeal these judgments cause concerns in the Russian society and government alike - if only because unfounded persecution is often directed at major religious organizations, Muslim in particular. Even though such concerns have been expressed at the level of the Presidential Administration, the situation has not improved.
The authorities require various organizations to consult with the list of banned extremist materials, and public libraries are already having problems with that. In fact, the list is difficult for any organization to use, since the listed materials are poorly described.
Unfounded anti-extremist enforcement in 2008 and early 2009 was in most cases triggered by criticism against the police, including the high-profile cases we reported in earlier consultations, such as the cases of bloggers Savva Terentyev and Dmitry Solovyev, pressure against certain mass media including Ingushetia.Ru website, Novaya Gazeta in St. Petersburg, Chernovik and Vremya Deistvyi papers in Dagestan. One type of criticism the Russian authorities cannot tolerate are statements alleging that police often contribute to the growth of terrorism by their brutal and unlawful conduct. On 24 and 26 February 2009, editor in chief and four reporters of the Chernovik paper faced clearly unfounded criminal charges of incitement to hatred against a certain social group, namely "the law enforcement personnel" (no trial date has been scheduled yet).
Of course, pressure against mass media may be explained by other reasons as well; mechanisms underlying such pressure are increasingly arbitrary. Web-based news agency URA.ru received two warnings for racist comments left by readers on their forum, even though the editors promptly removed the offending posts. On 20 April 2009, the Federal Court of Arbitrage upheld the warnings.
It is important to note that the range of de-facto protected "social groups" continues to expand based on recent judgments and current cases under investigation. Such "protected groups," in addition to police and the military, include the governments of Marii El and Tatarstan (the Irek Murtazin case) and even the Chinese government. Apparently, the vague wording of the law leaves plenty of room for abuse.
And finally, prosecution for extremism has been used as a pretext to pressure some NGOs. A criminal investigation involving the Novy Peterburg paper (even though this particular prosecution is unfounded, the paper otherwise merits some attention of the law enforcement agencies) was used as a pretext to search the office of the Memorial Research Center in St. Petersburg, even though the authorities had no reason whatsoever to search the NGO's office.