Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2017

The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia’s anti-extremist legislation in March 2017.


On March 22, 2017, the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications initiated a public discussion of the draft law intended to provide “clarification of the definition of offenses related to public display of Nazi attributes,” and quotation from the writings of the leaders of the Third Reich and Fascist Italy. SOVA Center has repeatedly pointed out that the ban against any demonstration of Nazi symbols regardless of their context, as prescribed in the Russian legislation, is absurd. However, it will not be easy for the Ministry to stipulate all the necessary exceptions – it is much easier to declare propaganda of the corresponding ideology a necessary condition for the demonstration of these symbols to be regarded as unlawful. We would like to add that we view bans against quoting from any texts as inappropriate – not a quote but the general purpose of a statement that includes it should be subject to evaluation.

On 3 March 2017 in Vienna, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Freedom of Media and special representatives of other international organizations adopted the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News,” Disinformation and Propaganda. The declaration reiterates a well-known thesis that freedom of expression extends to “information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb,” and that the limitations of this freedom must be not only legal, but also necessary and proportional. The declaration says that “Where intermediaries intend to take action to restrict third party content (such as deletion or moderation) which goes beyond legal requirements, they should adopt clear, pre-determined policies governing those actions. Those policies should be based on objectively justifiable criteria rather than ideological or political goals and should, where possible, be adopted after consultation with their users.” According to the Declaration, users should also be provided with information about such measures and be able to challenge the sanctions imposed on them. The document also notes that content publishers and intermediaries should never be liable for any third party content unless intermediaries specifically intervene in that content or “refuse to obey an order adopted in accordance with due process guarantees by an independent, impartial, authoritative oversight body (such as a court) to remove it and they have the technical capacity to do that.”

Criminal Prosecution

In mid-March, an English language instructior from Vladivostok received a suspended sentence of two years for, “using phrases and idioms” humiliating dignity of the Russians, during a volleyball game on an embankment court. We believe that the verdict against the teacher was inappropriate. Since his statements were heard not by numerous passers-by on the embankment, but only by the conflicting parties on the court, they should not have been considered public. In addition, we also believe that humiliation of dignity should be removed from Article 282, since it does not pose a serious public danger

At the same time, rapper David Nuriyev, also known as Ptakha [Bird], was sentenced in Moscow under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to a fine of 200 thousand rubles. He was found guilty of inciting hatred or enmity towards “a group of persons united on the basis of “assisting law enforcement agencies in search and detention of criminals” and being representatives of the public organization Antidealer. The prosecution was based on Ptakha’s speech in the 16 Tons club in September 2015 about the Antidealer movement. We view Nuriyev's verdict for this speech as inappropriate – it contained insults against the movement’s activists and calls for unlawful actions (damaging their property), but no incitement to violence. In addition, we believe that “persons assisting law enforcement agencies” don’t constitute a vulnerable social group that requires protection in the form of anti-extremist legislation. We are generally convinced that the vague notion of “social group” tends to become a source of abuses and must be excluded from anti-extremist articles.

On March 26, 17 representatives of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) were detained in Moscow. The detention took place at the FBK office, where Leonid Volkov, the head of the Navalny’s electoral headquarters, was conducting a live broadcast of the action against corruption. The law enforcement authorities announced the opening of a criminal case under Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as humiliation of human dignity), but it is not yet clear who will become a figurant of this criminal case and how actively it will be pursued.

In late March, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation approved the decision of the Privolzhsky District Military Court, which, in December 2016, inappropriately sentenced Tyumen blogger and publicist Alexei Kungurov to two years and six months in a settlement colony for justification of terrorism.

In late March, five followers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi were convicted in Ufa. Azamat Abutalipov, a former correspondent of the Kiske Ufa newspaper, and Aivar Khabibullin, the former head of the Bashkortostan government’s procurement department, were accused of organizing the activities of Nurcular, an organization recognized as extremist (Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code); both of them received a suspended prison sentence of 4 years, and were prohibited from engaging in any educational activity for a period of 3 years. Owner and director of the language school Shamil Khusnitdinov and teachers Timur Munasypov and Airat Ibragimov were accused of participating in the activities of the organization (Article 282.2 Part 2). The court issued a suspended sentence of two years to two defendants (the names not reported) and a suspended sentence of 1 year and 10 months to the third one. All three of them were prohibited from engaging in educational activities for 2 years. We view as inappropriate bans against the books by Turkish theologian Said Nursi, as well as the ban against Nurcular, an organisation that have never existed at all in Russia – there are only individual believers, who study the heritage of Nursi and face unwarranted persecution.

The North Caucasus District Military Court issued two verdicts in the case of a cell of the banned Islamic religious party Hizb ut-Tahrir in Dagestan. Murad Valiev was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in a maximum-security penal colony with a restriction of freedom for a period of 1 year 3 months under Part 1 of Article 205.5 (organizing a terrorist organization), as well as Article 30 part 1 and Article 278 (preparation for an action aimed at violent seizure of power). Valiyev was found guilty of involvement in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a religious and political party banned in the Russian Federation as terrorist. Gadzhi Ramazanov was found guilty under part 2 of Article 205.5 (participation in the activities of a terrorist organization) and sentenced to two years in prison in a minimum-security colony.

In early March, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation considered an appeal against the sentences of two Muslims from Bashkorthostan – Rishat Gataullin and Rinat Mamaev – convicted under Article 205.5 part 2 of the Criminal Code for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Privolzhsky District Military Court imposed on Mamayev and Gataullin a suspended sentence of 4.5 years in December. The prosecution found the verdict too lenient and appealed to the higher court. The Supreme Court increased the sentence – both defendants will spend 4 years in a minimum-security colony.

We believe that charging Hizb ut-Tahrir members with propaganda of terrorism and preparation for seizure of power only on the basis of their party activities (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.), as was the case in all the instances above, and prosecuting them under anti-terrorist articles is inappropriate.

In mid- March, officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB and the Federal National Guard Troops Service (Rosgvardia) conducted searches in 30 Muslim homes in various municipalities of Tatarstan. The communication of the Ministry of Internal Affairs informed that 13 criminal cases under Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 205.5 were being initiated, and 15 Muslims have been detained. Then, the court authorized the arrest of 10 of the detainees, one more was placed under house arrest for the same period.

Administrative Prosecution

In March, we were informed about three cases of fines imposed under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials or storage for the purpose of distribution) in connection with the banned slogan “Orthodoxy or Death”. In Chuvashia, opposition activists Dmitry Semyonov and Dmitry Pankov were fined for sharing news reports on the prosecution they had faced for images with this slogan. A resident of Ukhta was prosecuted for having posted the same slogan with the “image of Orthodox symbols with skulls” on his VKontakte page. The slogan “Orthodoxy or Death” was banned in 2010. Historically, however, it originates from one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, and is understood not as a wish for the death of the non-Orthodox, but as an opposition of Orthodoxy vs. spiritual death, i.e. “We can be either Orthodox or spiritually dead.” But no matter how one understands it, it is absurd to punish any mention of any prohibited material, let alone a slogan.

A resident of Kemerovo, who posted on VKontakte a video of Khalid Yasin's lecture The Duties of a Muslim woman, banned in 2014 in Dagestan, was fined under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code in February for distribution of inappropriately prohibited Muslim material. In our opinion, prohibition of this material was inappropriate, and, thus, prosecution for distributing the videotape of the lecture is inappropriate as well.

We also note that in March, at least two cases were initiated under Article 16.3 of the Administrative Code (non-compliance with prohibitions and restrictions on the import of goods into the customs territory of the Eurasian Economic Union or the Russian Federation) – in Saratov and Mineralnye Vody – for importation of inappropriately banned Muslim literature into Russia. In one of these cases, the charges were also brought under Article 16.2 (non-declaring or misleading declaring of the goods). The charges were based on an attempt to import the books Na Puti k Koranu [On the Way to the Koran] by Elmir Kuliyev, Osnovy Very v Svete Korana i Sunny [The Fundamentals of Faith in the Light of the Koran and the Sunnah], as well as The Life of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) by Safi al-Rahman al-Mubarakfuri.

Law enforcement agencies in recent months have actively prosecuted Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing religious literature. In March, we learned about several such cases. In Gelendzhik, the local organization of Jehovah's Witnesses was fined 100,000 rubles for the fact that, according to the prosecutor's office, extremist books and pamphlets, including in electronic form, maps of the Gelendzhik districts marked-up for delivering the literature and forms for reporting on the literature distribution and preaching efforts were found on the premises. The Tula community was fined 120,000 rubles, and its leader – 3,000 rubles, after two forbidden brochures (planted, according to the believers) were were found in the Kingdom Hall. The same story also took place in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky – the local religious organization was fined 200 thousand rubles after three CDs with a book recognized as extremist were found in the liturgical room (planted, according to the community members). The Smolensk community will have to pay a fine of 100 thousand rubles since forbidden materials were found in the Kingdom Hall and the at the house, where some community members were residing, in printed and electronic form, including on personal computers of the believers. On the other hand, the Regional Court in Voronezh overturned the district court’s order to suspend the activities of the local Jehovah's Witnesses organization for 45 days for storing banned brochures for mass distribution. The believers claimed that this literature had been planted. The Regional Court found the evidence of the prosecution witnesses inconsistent, and deemed the offence unproven.

We would like to remind that we consider the bans against the Jehovah's Witnesses literature as extremist and prosecution of believers for its dissemination inappropriate. In addition, we have to note that storing two or three copies of a material should not be qualified as intention for “mass distribution,” as stated in the Administrative Code.

Antiques dealers in Sochi and Ulyanovsk were fined under Article 20.3 (public demonstration of Nazi symbols). The Sochi resident posted on the Internet an announcement about the sale of banknotes of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, issued by the German occupation authorities in March 1942 and bearing the the Third Reich coat of arms, which contained a swastika. A resident of Ulyanovsk was punished for placing on the Avito website an announcement about the sale of medals with Nazi symbols. We believe that Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code should not be used against antiques dealers because their actions are not aimed at propaganda of Nazi symbols.

In addition, a resident of Ulyanovsk was fined under the same article for keeping on her VKontakte page photos of actors in a foreign film, with the swastika present on some of them. We have no further information about the film, but, given the content of the woman’s social networks profile, we doubt that the publication of these materials had a purpose of promoting Nazi ideology.

In Krasnodar, the court placed Aleksei Mandrigelia, a nationalist and a member of the People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), under administrative arrest for 10 days. According to Mandrigelia, he was charged with publishing a collage with Vladimir Putin against the swastika-decorated background. If this information is correct, we consider his prosecution inappropriate. The dissemination of such images can not be interpreted as undertaken for the purposes of neo-Nazi propaganda; such publications only constitute a polemical political statement.

Banning Organizatons and Materials as Extremist

On March 15, 2017, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation filed a claim in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation demanding liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia as extremist, the ban against the activities of this religious organization, as well as 395 of its units, that is, local religious communities, and confiscation of their property in favor of the state. At the same time, the Ministry issued an order to suspend the activities of the Administrative Center and the local religious organizations that are part of its structure, pending the consideration of the claim. The claim followed the audit of the organization that ended on February 27, 2017. The report of the Ministry of Justice on the results of the audit says that, despite the warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity, issued by the Prosecutor General's Office on March 2, 2016, the structural units of the organization are still involved in extremist activities that violate human rights and freedoms and harm citizens, public order and safety. From our point of view, the liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses organizations for extremism (five local communities in different cities were banned in 2016) has no legal grounds and is a clear case of religious discrimination. In the event that the central organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is banned, every person from among over one hundred thousand believers will be under threat of criminal prosecution for their faith.

In late March, Jehovah's Witnesses appealed to the Supreme Court with a counterclaim against the Justice Ministry. The Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses demanded that the Supreme Council recognize the actions of the Ministry of Justice against Jehovah's Witnesses as political repressions and deny the claim for the liquidation of the religious organization. As pointed out by the Administrative Center, “repressions include politically motivated actions of the authorities to limit the rights and freedoms of citizens regarded as dangerous for the state, including on religious grounds,” and the actions of the Ministry of Justice in this case limit the rights of citizens in this manner “on the basis of following the teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses” in violation of a number of articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Administrative Center also filed an appeal against the Ministry of Justice's order to suspend the activities of all 396 organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses registered in Russia. In addition, 395 local communities, which the Ministry of Justice pointed out in their lawsuit as structural subdivisions of the Administrative Center, appealed to the Supreme Court to recognize them as co-defendants in the case, so that each of them could exercise its right to a fair trial.

In mid-March, it became known that the Tatarstan Prosecutor's Office filed a claim in the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court seeking to ban the activities of the Naberezhnye Chelny branch of the Tatar Civic Center as an extremist organization. The prosecutorial statement contended that the activists of the Center “contribute to radicalization of the population of the republic” and “actively call for the independence of the Republic of Tatarstan from the Russian Federation.” The cases of criminal prosecution against the Tatar Civic Center’s former leader Rafis Kashapov and the activists of the organization as well as the cases of activists facing administrative responsibility for holding rallies without official permits were cited as the basis for the request. We do not have information on every case of prosecution against the activists of the Naberezhnye Chelny Tatar nationalist organization, but we would like to note that we view the verdict to its chairman Rafis Kashapov for incitement to separatism as inappropriate. A number of provisions of the Russian law on rallies are, in our opinion, inappropriate as well, since they unduly restrict the right to freedom of assembly.

In early March, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Saint Petersburg granted the request of the City Prosecutor's Office filed in connection with the claim by State Duma deputy Vadim Dengin; the Court recognized as extremist three images posted on a number of Internet pages, as well as pages of five atheist VKontakte communities: Bad Guy Jesus ™, Bad Guy Jesus v2.0, Tvortsukha, Jesus Christ and The Son of God. These pages contain various satirical atheistic materials, the vast majority of which constitute no public danger. Basically, they are aimed at criticizing religion and the ROC, but do not incite hatred toward believers, although believers may find them unpleasant. In our opinion, law enforcement agencies in this case could only have demanded that VKontakte administration block individual images or posts in these communities, but the blanket prohibition of entire communities is inappropriate.

In late March, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People appealed to the European Court of Human Rights with a complaint regarding the decision to ban Mejlis as an extremist organization.