Misuse of Anti-Extremism in October 2015

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


In the second half of October, the State Duma adopted in the first reading a draft law, submitted by the President, which would make it illegal to recognize sacred texts of the world religions as extremist. The draft consists of a single sentence, “The Bible, the Koran, the Tanah, and the Kangyur, their content and quotes from them cannot be recognized as extremist materials.” In our opinion, this bill will not solve the problems, which afflict the current practice of bans against religious texts in Russia. In fact, it only reinforces the status quo. These four books are not being prohibited in Russia (two attempts to ban the Koran resulted in major scandals). In the meantime, all other religious texts, including ancient and respected ones, are not protected from being banned in Russia on the grounds of extremism, because they do not have a nationwide reputation; indeed, these texts are being prohibited by the hundreds. As long as the law against extremism includes an absurd formula, which allows to qualify “propaganda of the superiority of one’s own religion” - that is, virtually any preaching - as falling under the definition of extremist activity, the practice of absurd bans will continue. Believers will continue to be prosecuted for illegal distribution of banned literature. Notably, the presidential draft bill fails to clarify the issue of translations and distinct versions of the Bible, the Koran, the Tanakh and the Kangyur - it remains unclear what versions could still be banned. It is also not clear, how courts are expected to deal with dangerous texts that contain quotes from the scriptures. Representatives of various religious organizations are preparing amendments to the law in order to expand the list of exempted religious literature; however, we don’t believe that these additions are likely to improve the bill as a whole.

In late October, the Unified Portal for posting legislative initiatives published for public discussion a draft bill developed by the Ministry of Communications, which proposes to introduce Article 13.32 - “Failure by a communications operator that provides services including access to information via the Internet telecommunications network to fulfill their obligations to restrict access to an Internet website, whose address has been included in the Unified Register of domain names, website pages and the website-identifying network addresses, as containing information prohibited for dissemination in the Russian Federation” - into the Administrative Code. Part 1 of this article suggests a fine for operators that fail to block a site entered in the Unified Register (according to the rules, blocking should take place within 24 hours); Part 2 of the new article proposes that providers and/or operators be fined for failure to restore access to a site within 24 hours after receiving a Roskomnadzor notice that it has been taken off the Unified Register. The adoption of this bill logically follows from the previous government measures aimed at combatting online dissemination of illicit materials - an order to block offending materials calls for corresponding punitive measures for failure to do so. However, a number of mechanisms for adding materials to the Unified Register have faced deserved criticism. In addition, it should be noted that only large ISPs and operators are able to meet the 24-hour deadline. The smaller ones do not have sufficient resources to monitor changes in the Unified Register with sufficient frequency and promptly take the steps required.

Criminal Prosecution

In mid-October, the Zheleznodorozhny district court of Yekaterinburg began its proceedings in the case against housewife Yekaterina Vologzheninova, who is 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.” The prosecution has been based on several posts shared via VKontakte social network. Law enforcement agencies based their charges on the following publications: the poem “Katsaps” by Anatoly Marushkevich, the images, styled to resemble the Second World War posters, with the words ”Stop the Plague” and “Death to Moscovite Invaders,” and three additional materials (the texts exhibiting varying degrees of radicalism). The principal message of “Katsaps” is that ethical Russians living in Ukraine are eager to defend it from Russia; the poem accuses the Russian authorities of attacking Ukraine, but contains no aggressive appeals. As for the poster, it obviously urges Ukrainian citizens to defend their country from occupation. The case falls into a series of other recent similar prosecutions and, in many ways, resembles the case of Alexander Byvshev, convicted for publishing a poem of similar content. Hostility of the posts’ authors - and probably of users, who shared the post – is based on activities undertaken by a particular group of citizens, rather than on their ethnic or religious background, gender or social class, so these publications cannot be qualified under Article 282. In addition, we would like to reiterate our opinion that the extremely painful Ukrainian crisis provokes many people into making extreme statements, not otherwise characteristic for them; we believe that this situation should not result in criminal prosecution, even for the most harsh statements, unless the offense is present in the most clear and unequivocal manner. This consideration should be taken into account, especially when the statement in question is addressed to citizens or authorities of another country.

In mid-October, an investigation was completed in the case under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (insulting the feelings of believers) against local resident Victor Krasnov in Stavropol. The case was initiated based on several comments in the “Overheard in Stavropol” community on VKontakte made in the fall of 2014. A staunch atheist, Krasnov expressed his negative attitude to Biblical passages in a somewhat rude manner, made fun of another conversation participant, and stated that “there is no god!” Then he expressed his opinion about Halloween in the same manner. After that, two other users, who took part in the same online conversation, reported the incident to the police. Based on the expert opinion, the Investigative Committee of Russia in Promyshlenny district of Stavropol, having concluded that Krasnov posted the comments, “of offensive character against a religion and aimed at insulting the religious feelings of believers,” opened a case under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. We consider this persecution inappropriate, since we don’t see anything that can be qualified under Article 148 in Krasnov’s actions. In addition, the experts have no right to make judgments on whether the statements have been offensive or aimed at insulting the feelings of believers, since such matters should be decided in court. We regard the prosecution against Krasnov as a violation of his right to freedom of conscience.

In late October, a criminal case under paragraph “b” of Article 282 Part 2 (inciting ethnic hatred or enmity with abuse of an official position) was opened in Moscow against Natalya Sharina, the director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature. The prosecution was based on the results of a search, which had been conducted upon request by an Ukrainophobic local deputy and found a forbidden book by Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Korchinsky (item 2089: Dmytro Korchinsky, Viyna u natovpi. Kyiv: Amadeus, 1999, by decision of the Meshchansky district court of Moscow on 03.14.2013). Sharina was detained; the law enforcement raided her residence as well as the residence of Valery Semenenko, the deputy chairman of the Ukrainians of Moscow organization. Sharina was later placed under house arrest; Semenenko became a witness in the case. We view the prosecution against Sharina as inappropriate for a number of reasons. You may remember that the Law on Combating Extremism conflicts with the Law on Librarianship, since, according to the latter, the libraries are obligated to keep all incoming materials in their collections. The need to eliminate this contradiction is long overdue, but, rather than taking appropriate legislative measures, the authorities choose to punish librarians for distributing banned literature or for keeping it with intent to distribute under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code, unless they check the names of their existing or newly acquired books against the constantly updated Federal List of Extremist Materials and remove prohibited items. In this case, however, the library administrator faced criminal, rather than administrative, responsibility. Criminal prosecution under Article 282 pertains to acts of propaganda, i.e., deliberate dissemination of materials with dangerous content though not prohibited by the court. However, librarians are not engaged in propaganda; they hold and give out books, and, of course, no law requires them to familiarize themselves with content of their holdings. This is not the first attempt of the Russian authorities to sue the director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature. Natalia Sharina was already prosecuted under Article 282 in 2011, but this case was soon dismissed due to lack of corpus delicti.

In connection with the events in Syria, Russia has intensified its internal law enforcement against supporters of the radical religious and political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was banned as terrorist despite the lack of proper justification, and now has been almost equated with ISIS. The Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideology contains signs of incitement to hatred, but there have been no evidence of Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters' involvement in any terrorist activity or any other actual conspiratorial activity in Russia. Meanwhile, merely on the basis of their party literature and discussions, they have been accused of preparing a violent government takeover and continuing the activities of a terrorist organization, and sentenced to unreasonably long prison terms. We consider this practice illegal. Here are the relevant cases from this October:

In early October, three people were detained in Chelyabinsk on suspicion of collaborating with Hizb ut-Tahrir. A criminal case has been initiated against each of them under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the organization, recognized as terrorist). By court decision, all three were arrested - currently for the term of two months.

In mid-October, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal against the sentence, issued by the North Caucasus district court in July against resident of Dagestan Shamil Omarov, convicted under Article 30 Part 1, Article 278 (preparation for the violent seizure of power or violent holding of power), Article 282 Part 2 (participation in an extremist organization) and Article 205.5 Part 2 to five years in a penal colony and a fine of 40 thousand rubles.

In the second half of the month, twenty Muslim citizens of Tajikistan (and, later, one more person) were detained in Moscow for their suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement as part of a criminal investigation under Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code. The court later sanctioned their arrest.

Administrative Prosecution

In October, we found out that three individuals were charged under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for distribution of inappropriately banned materials or storage with intent to distribute; in addition, one legal entity received a warning.

The president of a charitable foundation in Samara was subject to a court-ordered fine of 1,500 rubles after the prosecutorial inspection had found Jehovah's Witnesses' brochure “Worship the One True God” on a shelf in a social adaptation center, owned by the foundation. The Jehovah's Witnesses community of Chapayevsk in the Samara Region received a warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity for distributing banned literature. A Jehovah's Witnesses follower from Arkhangelsk was fined 1500 rubles.

In Astrakhan, the court sentenced Igor Stenin, head of the Russians of Astrakhan movement, to a fine of one thousand rubles for posting the video “Orange Sun 14/88” on VKontakte in 2012. The Federal List of Extremist Materials includes a video with a slightly different name, which was only banned in 2013.

In October, we learned of two cases of prosecution under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code for demonstrating of extremist symbols with no intention of promoting extremism. The Communist Party activist Lada Gracheva from Saratov was fined a thousand rubles for her VKontakte publication, which featured the symbols similar to the insignia of the Right Sector organization, banned in Russia. The publication was not intended to promote the banned organization; instead, the activity of Right Sector was being compared to that of the United Russia party. Activist Darya Polyudova from Krasnodar was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest; the total of three reports under this article had been filed against her. As usual, the charges were based on her VKontakte publication of the materials, critical of the authorities, which used Nazi symbols for polemical purposes. Polyudova refuses to reject this satirical tool on principle, despite the fact that she had been repeatedly brought to administrative responsibility under Article 20.3.

In October, the first sentence was issued under new Article 13.15 Part 6 of the Administrative Code (production or release of a mass media item containing public calls for terrorist activities, materials publicly justifying terrorism, or other materials calling for extremist activity). In mid-October, in Syktyvkar, a magistrate court found Leonid Zilberg, the publisher of the online magazine 7x7, guilty under this clause and fined him 15 thousand rubles. The charges stemmed from an illustration to the material about the repealed acquittal in the case of nationalist Alexey (Kolovrat) Kozhemyakin, who had vandalized the Jewish cultural center in Syktyvkar – a photo of the wall bearing an insulting inscription by Kozhemyakin (included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials) accompanied by a swastika. We view the court's decision as inappropriate. By providing the illustration to the news item, editors were, by no means, showing solidarity with Kozhemyakin or promoting his views - on the contrary, they condemned his actions, and certainly not incited anyone to any extremist activity.

Znak News Agency was fortunate to end up with merely a warning from Roskomnadzor. It was charged for publishing on its website an article under the title “Demonstrators in Syrian Aleppo Trampled a Russian Flag after the Air Strikes” accompanied by an image of a group of people desecrating the national flag of the Russian Federation. According to the authorities, publishing this illustration could be interpreted as disseminating information about the act subject to a criminal or administrative liability, i.e., as a violation of Article 10 Part 6 of the Federal Law 149-FZ “On information.” Such offences are punishable under Article 329 of the Criminal Code (desecration of the state emblem of the Russian Federation or the national flag of the Russian Federation). The Znak editorial board has declared its disagreement with the announced warning and intends to appeal it in court. We also view this sanction by Roskomnadzor as inappropriate.

As you may remember, the resolution of the plenary meeting of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation On Judicial Practice Related to the Statute of the Russian Federation “On the Mass Media of June 15, 2010 stipulated that “…the court of law should take into account not only the words and expressions used in the article, TV- or radio-program, but also their context.”

Organizations Banned as Extremist

In late October, the Moscow City Court upheld the prosecutorial request and recognized ultra-right organization, known as the “Russians” Ethno-political Association, as extremist. According to media reports, the ban against the movement was based on law enforcement actions against the movement’s Manifesto (found extremist by the court), and the fact of criminal and administrative liability under articles pertaining to nationalist propaganda, repeatedly faced by supporters and leaders of the “Russians” Association. During the trial, the prosecutor reported that the Manifesto contained calls for “the creation of the national state and the national liberation struggle by any available means,” which, according to the experts, could be interpreted as incitement to ethnic hatred. In our view, the founding documents of the “Russians” contain no direct incitement of this nature. As for the second reason - that is, criminal and administrative cases against the members of the organization - not all of them can be deemed appropriate. Moreover, some of them, such as the case against Alexander Belov (one of the movement’s leaders) are still in progress, and, in the absence of verdict, cannot yet serve as an argument in the proceedings. However, the “Russians” Association obviously engaged in xenophobic propaganda, so the decision to ban it can hardly be viewed as completely unjustified, despite all the apparent violations. Unfortunately, we do not have all the data on this case, and our reporting is based solely on the facts presented by mass media; thus, we may have to adjust our position in the future. The “Russians” Ethno-political Association was created in May 2011 through the merger of two organizations, recognized as extremist - Slavic Union/Slavic Force and the Movement against Illegal Immigration.