The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia’s anti-extremist legislation in June 2013.
On June 29, 2013, President Putin signed the Federal Law ‘On Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in order to counter the insult of citizens’ religious beliefs and sensibilities, the desecration of subjects and objects of religion veneration (of pilgrimage) and places of religious rites and ceremonies.’ Earlier in June, the law was approved by both State Duma senators and deputies (on the third reading). It entered into force on July 1, 2013. We remind readers that the law introduces criminal liability for public actions that express clear disrespect towards society or that insult believers’ religious sensibilities. Sova’s position on the new rules can be seen here (in Russian).
On June 21, the State Duma passed on the second and third readings the draft law ‘On Amendments to the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,”’ with the Federation Council approving the bill on June 26. The bill proposes the addition of a third paragraph prohibiting foreigners or stateless people “in respect of whom the legislation of the Russian Federation has been decided about the undesirability of their stay (residence) in the Russian Federation,” as well as persons whose activities have been considered extremist by a Russian court, from becoming a founder, participant or member of a religious organization. We note here that because Russian law does not provide a definition of participation in a religious organization, and since many such organizations do not have fixed memberships, the bill provides ample space for arbitrary misuse.
On June 22, the government introduced to the State Duma a bill that would toughen penalties under Criminal Code articles 280 (calls to extremist activity), 282 (inciting hatred and enmity), 282.1 (participation in an extremist community) and 282.2 (continued activity by an organization banned for extremism). For each article in question fines, terms of forced labor and prison terms are increased, except for Article 282, for which prison terms remain as they were before the amendment. As such, the proposal sets up the transfer of most extremist crimes from the category of minor offenses into a category of moderate severity in a bid to take on extremists with the “entire arsenal of means and methods of operational and investigative methods.” As a justification for such measures, the government explains that Russia is currently seeing the activation of “religious extremism” and requires preventative measures to combat the rise of terrorism. The severity of the bill, which runs counter to the general policy in criminal law, is meant to demonstrate Russian society's particular concern over this purported threat. However, the idea of extending prison terms for the sake of sending ‘signals’ to society, and the convenience of such investigations, seems to us unjustified. Additionally, intimidation is surely not an effective way to deal with radical groups.
In early June, the St. Petersburg city court upheld a late 2012 ruling by the Vyborg District Court of St. Petersburg in a case against activists from the Other Russia party. Readers will recall that the activists in question were fined after being found guilty of participating in the activities of the banned National Bolshevik Party under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (the organization of an extremist organization); however they were exempt from punishment due to an expired statute of limitations. They nevertheless intend to appeal the decision at the European Court of Human Rights. It is worth noting that while the two organizations, share a founder, it has not been proven in court that meetings of Other Russia activists equate to meetings of National Bolsheviks.
Meanwhile, at the end of June the Military Court of the North Sea Garrison convicted North Fleet officer Denis Bespalov under Part 2 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code, fining him 75,000 rubles (about $2,250) over participation in Other Russia meetings.
June saw two criminal proceedings begin under Part 1 of Article 282.2 against supporters of the banned movement Tablighi Jamaat. In the Krasnoyarsk region a Kansk resident faced charges, while in the Altai Republic two imams from the villages of Kosh-Agach and Tashanta do as well. It is Sova’s position that the ban on Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim group that has shown no inclination to violence, is unjustified – as is the harassment of its supporters.
In late June it was reported that the chief editor of a Smolensk region newspaper was brought before a magistrate’s court on charges under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code, the propaganda or public display of Nazi symbols or attributes. The reason was that the newspaper had published an article devoted to combating extremism illustrated with a swastika. It has always been Sova’s position that the demonstration of Nazi symbols for purposes other than propaganda should not be subject to prosecution.
In the second half of the month reports came out on the case against a Togliatti bookstore owner on charges under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code, the dissemination of extremist materials. The shopowner had been selling the banned books The Constellation of Righteous Caliphs by Osman Nuri Topbash and Fortress of the Muslim by Said bin Ali bin Waqf al-Qahtani. These books are among an assortment of 68 religious texts found extremist by Orenburg’s Lenin District Court in March 2012. We believe their prohibition is unjustified.
The Novocheboksarsk City Court fined the head of a local Internet service provider 2,000 rubles (about $60) under the same article after the firm did not restrict user access to prohibited extremist materials online. We should note here that Article 20.29 allows for charges and penalties based on willful violation – but not for oversight.
During the same period a magistrate’s court in the Lipetsk region city of Chaplygin convicted the owner of a computer club under Part 2 of Article 6.17 of the Administrative Code, the violation of the legislation on the protection of children from information harmful to their health or development. He was fined 5,000 rubles (about $150). The charges were based on the fact that content filters installed on the firm’s computers did not fully perform their task, allowing access to some online extremist materials. As existing systems of filtration are simply not effective at filtering such content, it is Sova’s position that the blame should not be attributed to the owners of computer clubs, Internet cafés, etc.
Materials banned for extremism
In the second half of June the Krasnodar region’s Uspensky District Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses brochure "Bearing Thorough Witness" About God's Kingdom as an extremist text. The trial took two years to complete, as there have been several examinations of experts – who twice concluded that the book does not contain any signs of extremism. Despite this, the court found that the brochure “contains information that incites religious hatred, as well as breaches the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of the person and citizen based on his religious affiliation.” Readers will recall that Sova sees the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with the prohibition of their texts on extremism grounds, as wrongful.
Other state and public activities
In early June, prosecutors at the Rostov region’s Matveev-Kurgansky district court filed a lawsuit demanding the removal of a banner reading “Falun Dafa Qigong – self-improvement,” which also listed the Web address of the book Zhuan Falun. The prosecutor’s office also filed a lawsuit attempting to force Rostelekom, Russia’s primary long-distance telephony provider, to limit access to the Falun Dafa website advertised on the banner. We note that a few Falun Dafa materials were deemed extremist in a 2011 ruling of the Pervomaisky District Court of Krasnodar; this ruling was referred to in a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. Sova has long stated that the persecution of Falun Dafa is unreasonable and unlawful.
In the middle of the month Roskomnadzor, the media oversight agency, issued a warning to MK.ru after it posted a wrongfully banned clip of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer,” Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away.
During the same period it was reported that obeshania.ru had appealed to the Moscow Arbitration Court with a bid to invalidate a warning issued by Roskomnadzor over the publication of an image of a shirt decorated by a picture of members of Pussy Riot stylized as Orthodox icons by artist Artem Loskutov. A number of other media outlets including Grani.ru (twice) received warnings from Roskomnadzor after publishing the same image. Obeshania.ru representatives note that in accordance with Article 1 of the Federal Law “On Countering Extremist Activity,” media are prohibited only from distributing materials deemed extremist in a Russian court and/or included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials – neither of which applies to the image on the shirt. Images of the shirt have repeatedly caused administrative prosecution, but the shirt has not been deemed extremist.
In June Russian law enforcement agencies in various regions continued the recent practice of seizing entire publication runs of materials printed by opposition groups, citing either a need to “test” the materials for extremism, or simply declaring them “forbidden” on dubious grounds. In the Moscow region city of Krasnogorsk, officials seized tens of thousands of copies of the newspaper For Navalny, while in the Kirov region (where the trial against Alexey Navalny has been underway), two Interior Ministry officials were given awards for removing materials from ‘Team Navalny’s’ local headquarters. In Yaroslavl, police seized three hundred leaflets at a picket put on by a local branch of Mikhail Prokhorov’s Civic Platform party. It is illegal for law enforcement to seize entire runs of publications, or even large quantities of them, to test “for extremism” – a few copies will do.