Briefing points on article 18, 19, 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the problem of misuse of the counteraction to extremism in Russia October 15-16, 2009
On October 15, 2009, UN Human Rights Committee examined the sixth periodic report of the Russian Federation on measures taken to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We publish the briefing points of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
Addressing anti-extremism practice in Russia, we have to take into account the complex nature of national anti-extremist legislation - it combines counteraction to illegal violent action and illegal speech.
The current anti-extremist provisions against violent crimes, even though imperfect, are generally good enough, and their enforcement is apparently getting better. So, even though racist violence continues to be an acute problem, while the technical skills and cruelty of the criminals have increased, for the first time in 2009 we have observed a drop in the number of racist attacks, particularly in Moscow (see our statistics). While it is too early to take stock of the year, for the first time in last ten years we hopefully expect the number of hate crimes to be lower than last year.
But the part of anti-extremist law affecting the freedom of expression is detrimental, and its enforcement remains a serious threat to fundamental rights and freedoms. The most problematic is excessively broad and vague legal definition of extremism, which creates room for abuse. The definition of extremism includes various actions from terrorism to such completely unclear clauses as :inciting social discord;. And authorities at various levels take advantage of it.
Not recounting even main cases of such an abuse (see more details in our annual reports), I would mention several most important trends:
First, the anti-extremist law is being very frequently used against freedom of conscience. It includes ill-founded or even unfounded persecution of some Muslim groups, Jehovah Witnesses, some critics of religion, but also many other targets. In some cases we may see wrong perception of security issues, in some other cases anti-extremism law is used as a tool against blasphemy (because our legal definition of extremism makes it possible to interpret any strong criticism of someone's religious (or anti-religious) opinions as "incitement to religious hatred').
Second, Russia has a Federal list of printed and other materials, banned as extremist. This legal mechanism is very weak and controversial. Some of these materials are really dangerous, while some other are well known religious texts, and some points of the list are just misleading, such as "a flag with a cross on it".
Third, unfounded anti-extremist enforcement in many cases was triggered by criticism against the law enforcement bodies themselves. It is especially important for mass-media outlets. There are many examples of such law enforcement, but the most important current example is the case of Chernovik (Draft Version) newspaper in Dagestan Republic. This newspaper in 2008 got an anti-extremist warning, and in then, Nadira Isaeva, the editor in chief, and several journalists were charged with extremism under two articles of the Criminal Code. The only ground for bringing the charges, beside the criticism against brutal methods of the law enforcement officials, was a quotation of one of the militant's leaders in a raw of other quotations on the same subject.
Fourth, the definition of extremism and the text of relevant article in the Criminal Code include such a positions as inciting hostility to :the certain social group;, while there is no definition of social group in the law, and there is no common understanding of the term in everyday language. As a result musician Savva Terentyev got one year of suspended sentence in 2008 for a harsh commentary against police made on the LiveJournal weblog. The court considered his words inciting hatred towards a social group of policemen. And that is not the only case of such kind of use of the clause about :inciting hatred towards a social group;. Since July this year, Irek Murtazin, former press secretary of the Tatarstan President, faces charges, inter alia, for alleged incitement to hatred against a certain social group, namely the Government of Tatarstan.
Fifth, the quality of public justice regarding anti-extremism is especially poor. In addition to aforesaid, there are two other major problems:
- the court decisions, whether substantially just or not, are either not backed by a motivation, publicly available, or the motivation is very weak,
- or the court decisions are just copy-pasted from experts' conclusions, as a rule ordered by the prosecutor's office or other supervisory agencies and often dramatically lacking in quality.
Sixth, the broadness and vagueness of the legal definition of extremism provoke citizens, officials and law enforcement officers to use this term arbitrarily against activists of any kind, and such a practice at times results in various rights abuses.