Misuse of Anti-Extremism in May 2015

The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia's anti-extremist legislation in May 2015.


In late May, the president signed the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” Recall, the law states that “activities of foreign or international non-governmental organization that represent a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, the country's defense or security of the State may be considered undesirable in the Russian Federation.” The decision is made by the Prosecutor General's Office with input from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Justice. Continuation of these activities is subject to administrative or criminal liability, entailing a fine of up to 500 thousand rubles, mandatory labor for a term up to five years with possible restriction of freedom for up to two years, detention for up to six months or imprisonment for up to six years.

From our point of view, the vague wording, used to define “undesirable activities,” is not directed against extremist or terrorist organizations; their activities already fall within the scope of the relevant legislation. The law obviously creates a new instrument to suppress activities of various, not only foreign, civil society organizations in Russia (including religious, but, likely, also commercial institutions) and can serve as a pretext for large-scale human rights violations.

Criminal Prosecution

In mid-May, the Pervouralsk city court in the Sverdlovsk region sentenced local resident Elvira Sultanakhmetova to 120 hours of mandatory labor under Part 1 of the Criminal Code Article 282 (actions aimed at inciting hatred and enmity, as well as humiliation of a person or a group of persons on the basis of religion, committed in public). According to the prosecution, when responding to an online survey “Can a Muslim celebrate the New Year?,” Sultanakhmetova spoke out against the celebration citing the Qur'an. She urged Muslims to refrain not only from celebrating the New Year, but also from wearing St. George's ribbons and painting Easter eggs, as “vile pagans” do. Sultanakhmetova compared the wish of “Happy New Year!” to murder or adultery, and claimed that dance around the Christmas tree had descended from a bloody pagan ritual. We view Sultanakhmetova's verdict as inappropriate. Her statement contained no dangerous incitement against the infidels, and the question of whether those, who celebrate the New Year, Easter or the Victory Day, could be considered “pagans” and “polytheists,” falls outside the bounds of law.

In late May, the case under Part 2 of the Criminal Code Article 280 (public calls for extremist activities), Part 1 of Article 282 (incitement to religious hatred), and Part 1 of Article 222 (illegal purchase and possession of weapons) was filed with the Leninsky district court of Makhachkala against Shamil Magomedov. According to investigators, Magomedov committed a crime under Article 280 and 282 by sharing via FlyLinkDC ++ file-sharing network the text of The Book of Monotheism, abanned XVIII century treatise by Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Tamimi. We consider this ban inappropriate. Accordingly, we view prosecution of Magomedov for “extremism” as inappropriate as well.

In late May, it was reported that the Bakhchisaray district court of the Republic of Crimea was considering a case under Part 2 of the Criminal Code Article 282 (incitement to hatred and enmity with the use of violence or threat of violence) against Mustafa Yagyaev, a technician with Housing Maintenance and Utilities Board in the village of Zheleznodorozhnoe. The case was initiated after an argument between Yagyaev and female employees of the Housing Maintenance and Utilities Board accounting department. Disagreeing with their view of the consequences of Crimea joining the Russian Federation, Yagyaev began to scream at his colleagues and use derogatory epithets against them; according to the investigation, he also said: “we will return Crimea to Ukraine, there will be a war, we will have to cut and burn, and the Russians will drown in blood in this war, but it is a pity that my Muslim brothers will perish.” (The defendant denies that he made such a statement.) The Center for Combating Extremism found out about this essentially interpersonal conflict and opened the case. In the course of the criminal investigation against Yagyaev (a practicing Muslim, and a member of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis during the 1990s) his religious literature, computer hard drives, and various documents were seized during a search. In our opinion, the case under Article 282 against Yagyaev was opened inappropriately. Even assuming that he actually threatened his colleagues with violence, these statements were not public, since they were addressed to the three women, who were in the same room.

In late May, we found out about the criminal case under Article 280.1 (public calls for action aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation), initiated by the FSB Investigations Department in the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol against Refat Chubarov, the head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People; his name is to be put on the international wanted list. According to investigators, Refat Chubarov, in his interview to Ukrainian media in April 2015, called for violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, specifically, “for separation of the Republic of Crimea from the Russian Federation and its incorporation into the territory of Ukraine.” An interview that became the basis for legal action has not been specified, but we know that Ukrainian Channel 5 showed an interview with Chubarov on April 1, 2015, in which he demanded the return of Crimea to Ukraine and warned that the Ukrainian people should be prepared “for an open full-scale war with the Russian Federation.“ In our view, Chubarov's statements in this interview (if this was, indeed, the interview that formed the basis for the investigation) represent a figure of speech rather than an incitement to war. In addition, in our opinion, prosecuting the leader of the Mejlis for his “separatism” is unacceptable – it is impossible to accuse of separatism a person, who never recognized the annexation in the first place. Also, the issue of Crimea being incorporated into Russia, while clear in terms of Russian laws, is not as clear from the point of view of international law, and the inhabitants of the peninsula should have the right on their views in this dispute.

Two inappropriately initiated criminal cases on extremism were closed in May.

Earlier in May, employees of the Investigations Department of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Mari El informed Andrei Svistunov, the Left Front (Levy Front) coordinator in Yoshkar-Ola, that a criminal case against him under the Criminal Code Article 205.2 (public calls for terrorist activity or public justification of terrorism) was closed. The investigation was launched in 2012 in connection with the fact that the activist had posted on his VKontakte page links to documentary films on the activities of foreign radical left organizations, which were made by several Russian TV channels and shown on television.

In late May, the Moskovsky District Court of Kazan closed the criminal case under Article 282 (incitement to ethnic hatred) against Rashid Akhmetov, the editor of Zvezda Povolzhya weekly in Kazan, due to the statute of limitations. Criminal proceedings against Akhmetov were initiated in March 2015 by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in Tatarstan jointly with the Prosecutor's Office of the Moskovsky District of Kazan. He was charged for reprinting Fauziya Bayramova’s article “We are Tartars, not Russians” (originally published in Vzyatka (Bribe) newspaper in Chuvashia) in Zvezda Povolzhya in 2011. This article was published in 2011, but the statute of limitations did not preclude law enforcement agencies from filing charges. Bayramova's article contained harsh remarks against the Russians, but no overtly aggressive appeals. Nevertheless, the article was recognized as extremist on October 3, 2014, and the editor-in-chief of Vzyatka was soon convicted for its publication under Part1 of Article 282 to mandatory labor. From our point of view, both the ban on the article and the persecution against the media for its publication are inappropriate.

Administrative Prosecution

In May, we found out that four individuals and one legal entity were sentenced to fines under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for distribution of prohibited materials or possession with intent to distribute. A journalist and anti-fascist from Saratov was fined for publishing a few pages of a banned anti-Semitic book on his social network page, despite the fact that his actions were directed against the anti-Semitic propaganda. A female Jehovah's Witness from the village of Golyshmanovo in the Tyumen region and two more Jehovah's Witnesses from Cherkessk along with their entire Jehovah's Witnesses community of Cherkessk, were fined for distributing prohibited leaflets.
In addition, in May, the Rostov regional court upheld the sentence of the Zheleznodorozhny Court of Rostov-on-Don, which had fined two women 20 thousand rubles under the Administrative Code Article 20.2 Part 2 (organizing or holding a public event without filing the notice of the public event in the prescribed manner) for distributing Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets from a portable stand at a bus station. The court's decision clearly stated that the fact that the pamphlets contained the internet address of the Jehovah's Witnesses website (which, in our opinion, had been banned inappropriately) was the determining factor for the issuance of the fine.

In May we learned of two cases of prosecution under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code for display of Nazi symbols, which took place clearly not in the context of Nazi propaganda. A nationalist was sentenced to a fine in Novosibirsk for posting on social networks the images of President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko with a swastika on his shoulder eating babies. A case under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code was opened in Alapayevsk of the Sverdlovsk region against a local businessman, who made the Victory Day posters, displayed on the two city-own stands on May 1, 2015 with the consent of the city administration. They contained a photo of marching Nazi soldiers, surrounded by St. George ribbons and five-pointed stars. While the posters were infelicitous, we view the prosecutors' actions as inappropriate – the swastika on the soldiers' uniform obviously could not be regarded as propaganda of Nazism. The Prosecutor's Office has issued a motion to the head of the city administration to eliminate violations of the law on combating extremism; the head of the Novosibirsk Department of Culture was fired as a result, and the deputy head of the administration received an official reprimand.

Banning and Blocking Materials for Extremism and Other Governmental Actions

In accordance with the February decision of the city court of Kurgan, the Federal List of Extremist Materials once again added Salih al-Suheymi's book Osnovy Very v Svete Korana i Sunny (Foundations of Faith in the Light of the Qur'an and Sunnah)and several editions of Krepost Musulmanina (Fortress of the Muslim) (No. 2806) by Said bin Wahf al-Quahtani in late May. Russian courts had previously recognized both books as extremist, and the restrictions on Fortress of the Muslim, along with restrictions on other publications banned in 2012 in Orenburg, were lifted in early 2015. We believe that both books contain no signs of extremism.

A court in Pervouralsk is considering a claim to recognize Selected Hadith by Sheikh Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi as extremist. The rationale behind this claim by Pervouralsk prosecutors is not clear to us. We can assume that the attention of law enforcement agencies was attracted by the identity of the editor of this compilation. Shaykh Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi (1917-1965) is, indeed, one of the ideologists of Tablighi Jamaat religious movement, banned in Russia (inappropriately, in our opinion). However, he is not the author of the texts, presented in the book; he merely selected them and organized by topics. We would like to remind that the Hadith – the ancient reports of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad – are sacred Muslim texts, second only to the Qur’an in their status. Rejection of polytheism, apostasy and all sorts of sins is typical for ancient Islamic texts, and people who engage in these sins are subject to extremely negative characterizations. However, it is pointless to accuse medieval religious authors of intolerance. Evaluating ancient texts from the standpoint of modern legislation on extremism is equally pointless.

In late May, it was announced that the Anapa city court of the Krasnodar region issued a decision to block the website rublacklist.net of the Roskomsvoboda project. The decision was based on the fact that one of the site’s pages contained instructions on bypassing access restrictions against websites. The decision refers only to this particular page of the Roskomsvoboda website, but, at the same time, talks about banning the entire site. The website owners have not been notified of the lawsuit and had no opportunity to participate in it as an interested party. The Roskomsvoboda’s creators argue that their site only contains information that is not prohibited in Russia. There is no legal ban on providing information about the means of restoring access to information, so the decision of the Anapa city court is inappropriate.

It became known in May that Roskomnadzor sent letters to the administration of Facebook, Twitter and Google requesting that they provide user information (including readership statistics) under the Bloggers Law and block pages that fall under Lugovoy’s Law. Late in the month, in the course of a Roskomnadzor meeting with representatives of Twitter, the parties reached an agreement to delete 53 pages that the Russian agency considers “extremist.” We also know that Roskomnadzor narrowed down its demands to the level of particular tweets rather than accounts. We oppose both the Bloggers Law and the Lugovoy’s Law.

In late May, the Crimean Minister of Culture reported that “in order to prevent cases of dissemination of materials of extremist and terrorist nature, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Crimea took actions to withdraw publications included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials from libraries.” In our view, the actions of the Crimean authorities were inappropriate, because the law on librarianship provides no procedure for withdrawing materials from library collections. The law enforcement authorities have only the right to demand a specific level of restrictions on access to the banned content.

It should also be noted that, in late May, the Kirovsky District Prosecutor's Office of Yekaterinburg has seized books of the Tanakh, including the Torah, the Prophets and the Scriptures, from the library of Or Avner, a Jewish grammar school, in order to test them for “the presence of extremist materials in these books.” From our point of view, prior to inspecting a Jewish school, the law enforcement agencies should have familiarized themselves with the kind of books they could find there. Conversely, in order to get acquainted with the text of the Old Testament, it is not necessary to take the books from a Jewish school.