Misuse of Anti-Extremism in September 2017
It was reported in September that the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation dismissed the complaints by nationalists Alexander Belov (Potkin) and Yevgeny Kort against Article 282 of the Criminal Code in July, the same way it had dismissed a similar earlier complaint by Anton Nossik. The complaints by Belov and Kort pointed out that Article 282 of the Criminal Code served as the basis for making them criminally liable for their political activities, that it contradicted the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and speech and “excessively restricted the rights of citizens, allowing to hold a person criminally responsible for expressing an opinion by utilizing vague notions, such as “social group” and “motives of hatred or enmity,” as well as imposing criminal punishment in the form of imprisonment for actions that caused no harm to human health or property, and posed no danger to public safety or the environment.”The Constitutional Court refused to accept either of the complaints for consideration and explained that Article 282 of the Criminal Code was in alignment with the restrictions on freedom of speech established by international law, and there was no ambiguity in its content. We do not consider the wording of this article to contradict the Constitution directly, but we do believe that the Russian anti-extremist legislation, including Article 282 of the Criminal Code, is in need of clarification.
Prosecution for Inciting Religious Hatred or for Oppositional Statements
In mid-September, the Novocheboksarsk City Court sentenced Alexei Mironov, a volunteer of Alexei Navalny's headquarters in Cheboksary, to 2 years 3 months in a settlement colony. Mironov was found guilty under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activities on the Internet) and Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to ethnic hatred). The case against Mironov was based on the fact that he had posted on his VKontakte page an image of an identity card of a citizen subject to military conscription, accompanied by the text in English: “God bless the USA. Keep calm and f *** Russia” and the caption “I officially call for a violent change of government” on top of the image. We believe that there were no grounds for prosecution against the activist under Article 280 of the Criminal Code. Such an anti-government statement of a general nature made by an ordinary citizen does not pose any danger to the state, especially since the audience of this post was minimal. The charges against Mironov under Article 282 were filed in connection with his statement regarding the need to exterminate Muslims. We do not consider this charge inappropriate. However, we view the punishment imposed upon Mironov as excessively harsh.
The Simferopol district court passed a verdict in the case of Ilmi Umerov, the deputy head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, in late September. The court sentenced him to two years in a settlement colony with a two-year ban on public activities, despite the fact that the prosecutor had requested a suspended sentence. The criminal case against Umerov under Article 280.1 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation using mass media or the Internet) was opened in May 2016, following his live broadcast on the ATR TV channel in Ukraine in March. We view prosecutions against Crimean Tatars for calls to return Crimea back to Ukraine as inappropriate – residents of the area, who have never recognized Russia’s annexation of the territory to begin with, cannot be accused of separatism. In addition, the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Russia is questionable under the international law, and the Crimean Tatars have the right to their point of view in this dispute. The severity of Umerov’s verdict is also worth noting – he was sentenced to a real imprisonment, despite his numerous health problems.
It was reported in mid-September, that, on August 30, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case related to restrictions against the websites Kasparov.ru, Grani.ru and EJ.ru, as well as the sites of the Roskomsvoboda project and the Worldview of Russian Civilization, blocked in 2012-2016. The ECHR combined these five complaints into a single case, having decided that they touched on similar problems. The appellants believe that restricting access to websites is illegal and pursues no legitimate purpose. The ECHR contacted the Russian authorities with questions pertaining to the case, and, in particular, asked whether the norms of Russian legislation on internet restrictions were “sufficiently precise and foreseeable in their application” and whether they “afford a sufficient degree of protection against arbitrariness.” The SOVA Center views access restrictions for all the above-listed websites as inappropriate.
Persecution of Religious Organizations and Believers
In early September, we were informed about yet another case related to involvement in the banned radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Prosecutor's Office of Dagestan reported that it had forwarded to the North Caucasus District Military Court the case under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of a terrorist organization) against I. Mamedov. We see no grounds for banning Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, and view charges under anti-terrorist articles against its members based solely on their party activism (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) – these are the charges brought against I. Mamedov – as inappropriate.
Also in mid-September, a supervisory appeal was filed with the presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation challenging the decision to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and 395 local communities and to ban their activities as extremist. Jehovah's Witnesses are asking for a complete overturning of the Supreme Court decision of April 20, 2017 confirmed by the Supreme Court Appeals Board on July 17, 2017. They also seek to suspend the implementation of this decision until the end of the proceedings in the higher court. The complaint, in particular, says that banning religious practice and propaganda of one’s religious beliefs as extremist activity violates the principle of uniformity in interpretation and application of legal norms in court, as well as the rights and the legitimate interests of an indefinite group of people, who follow the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses; thus the public interest of the Russian democratic society as a whole “in ensuring religious pluralism and protecting human and civil rights and freedoms” is being violated as well.
At the same time, four foreign Jehovah's Witnesses organizations filed an appeal with the Leningrad Regional Court against the Vyborg City Court decision of August 17, 2017 to recognize the book Holy Scripture: Translation of the New World (2015) and three Jehovah's Witnesses brochures as extremist. The appeal states that, in its ruling on the prohibition of the Bible in the Jehovah's Witnesses translation and the three brochures, the court relied on the expert opinion conducted under the guidance of a specialist, who lacked the necessary qualifications. Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses submitted to the Vyborg City Court a number of conclusions by authoritative linguists and religious scholars, which dismissed the above-mentioned expert opinion as unfounded and directly erroneous. The court of first instance failed to take these conclusions into account; now the regional court will have a chance to review them.
We would like to remind that SOVA Center views liquidations of Jehovah's Witnesses organizations as extremist, prosecutions against members of their communities and bans against their texts as a clear manifestation of religious discrimination, which has no legitimate grounds.
It was reported in mid-September, that, on August 30-31, the ECHR communicated eight appeals related to bans of or denial of registration to several religious organizations, prosecution for involvement in their activities, or recognition of religious works as extremist. All these appeals, filed with the ECHR in 2011 - 2017, were taken into consideration simultaneously since they complained of a violation of Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. The ECHR will review the rulings of Russian courts that affect most of the religious movements, whose adherents face discrimination on the territory of the Russian Federation – in particular, Muslims studying the legacy of Turkish theologian Said Nursi, followers of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and Salafis, as well as Scientologists, adherents of the Chinese spiritual practice Falun Gong and of Aum Shinrikyo. The decisions to be made in Strasbourg are of fundamental importance for further judicial practice in the cases pertaining to religious organizations and, more broadly, in the matters relating to the right to freedom of conscience, both in Russia and in some former Soviet republics, whose religious policies are influenced by the Russian Federation. However, it should be borne in mind that Russia repeatedly ignored the ECHR decisions in this sphere.