Misuse of Anti-Extremism in February 2018
On February 7, 2018, the Supreme Court of Russia introduced in the State Duma an extensive bill to amend the procedural codes. It includes changes to the procedures that pertain to court cases related to recognizing materials as extremist or recognizing information as banned. According to the Supreme Court’s proposal, these cases should be transferred from the civil to the administrative jurisdiction. The bill establishes a clear procedure for considering such cases. When considering a prosecutorial claim to recognize materials as extremist, a court is expected to involve persons, whose rights and legitimate interests may be affected by the court decision, in the proceedings. In addition, “in the event that a person, whose actions served as the reason for filing an administrative claim, has been identified,” the court shall involve such a person as a defendant in the case and hold them responsible for the legal costs. If such person has not been identified, the bill proposes involving an ombudsman – of the RF or of the subject of the Federation – “for giving an opinion” in the case. The court will be able to take “preliminary protective measures in the form of restricting access to extremist materials” in the course of the proceedings, and, if the claim is satisfied, the decision to ban these materials would go into effect immediately. Cases related to recognizing information as prohibited for dissemination in Russia are to be treated in a similar way. This change will put an end to prohibitions enacted without adversarial process. Another significant difference in the procedure is Roskomnadzor’s involvement, which becomes mandatory. We provide more details about the planned reform of the legal procedure in “extremism-related” cases here.
On February 15, 2018, Federation Council member Anton Belyakov introduced in the State Duma a draft law seeking to amend Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences (CAO), which covers propaganda and display of Nazi symbols and symbols of banned organizations. The bill proposes changing the title and wording of the article, so that it only pertains to public demonstration of Nazi symbols intended as propaganda prohibited by federal laws and to supplement the article with a commentary, using the wording previously proposed by the Ministry of Communications: “The provisions of this article do not apply to cases, in which Nazi attributes or symbols, or attributes or symbols similar to Nazi attributes or symbols to the degree of confusion, or attributes or symbols of extremist organizations, or other paraphernalia or symbols, for which propaganda is prohibited by the federal law, are used in works of science, literature or art, or for informational, training and educational purposes in the absence of signs of propaganda, and/or justification for extremism.”SOVA Center has repeatedly pointed out that the ban against any demonstration of Nazi symbols, regardless of the context, as currently prescribed by the Russian law, is absurd and leads to inappropriate prosecution of citizens. Therefore, we welcome legislative initiatives that could potentially change the situation.
Тhe Practice of the European Court of Human Rights
It was reported in February, that, a month earlier, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) communicated the complaint of Yelets activist Gennady Makarov, who had spent five days under arrest under Article 20.29 CAO (mass distribution of extremist materials) for reposting a collage of President Putin wearing makeup. The image of Putin in makeup was recognized as extremist in 2016, and, actually, Makarov’s publications on the social networks VKontakte and LiveJournal discussed the very fact of the ban against this image. The ECHR asks Russia to explain whether the Russian courts took into account the context in which the publication was made and identified the legitimate aim of the interference with Makarov’s rights, as required by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR also wants to find out whether the courts took into account the way, in which the activist was expected to become aware that the picture had been declared extremist, whether the courts considered the proportionality of the sanction and whether a warning or another, less intrusive measure could have been sufficient to achieve the desired dissuasive effect with regard to Makarov. We believe that the image of Putin wearing make-up was banned inappropriately, so Makarov faced administrative prosecution inappropriately as well.
The complaint of Cheboksary’s opposition activist Dmitry Semenov, who had been fined three times under the same article 20.29, was also communicated in January. Semenov was punished for publishing a picture of MP Vitaly Milonov wearing a T-shirt with the banned slogan “Orthodoxy or Death,” and for publishing the materials regarding his case mentioning the same slogan. In connection with this complaint, in addition to the issues relating to Article 10 of the Convention, Russia also faces questions about a possible violation of Article 11 of the Convention and Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, in the light of the fact that, as a result of his conviction, Semenov temporarily forfeited his right to stand in election and to organize public events. Russia has to answer whether the statutory ban, which prevents individuals convicted of “extremist” administrative offences from organizing public events, pursues any legitimate aim and whether it is proportionate, given the circumstances of Semenov’s case? We view both the recognition of the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death” as extremist and the prosecution against Semenov as inappropriate.
Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements
The criminal charges against Valery Bolshakov, the chairman of the Sevastopol Workers Union, were filed in early February. He is charged under Article 280 Parts 1 and 2 with public calls for extremist activity, including using the Internet, and under Part 1 of Article 282 with inciting hatred against the social group “Terek Cossacks.” The charges are based on a number of photos, videos and comments, published by Bolshakov on his VKontakte page in the period from May 1, 2015, to August 14, 2017, and on Bolshakov’s one-man picket “holding a poster that called for the removal of the existing authorities.” The resolution naming Bolshakov as a defendant in this case stated that his publications called for the overthrow of the “Putin’s regime” and establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that the activist conducted his one-man picket due to his “persistent hostile and intolerant attitude toward representatives of the government” and that, “motivated by political and ideological hatred and enmity,” he “gave a deliberately negative assessment to the social group “Terek Cossacks.”” We haven’t got access to Bolshakov’s statements, and thus can’t say whether they contained calls for a violent overthrow of power that presented public danger and merited criminal prosecution. However, we would like to note that the “persistent hostile and intolerant attitude toward representatives of the government” does not constitute any kind of extremist activity as described in the relevant federal law. We also would like to note that incitement to political and ideological hatred is not covered by Article 282 of the Criminal Code. In addition, we believe that the Terek Cossacks do not constitute a vulnerable social group that needs protection in the form of anti-extremist articles of the Criminal Code. We are also convinced that the vague notion of “social group” should be altogether excluded from the relevant articles of the Criminal Code.
The Town Prosecutor’s Office of Velikiye Luki reported in mid-February that the criminal case against a 21-year-old local resident under Article 282 part 1 of the Criminal Code (the incitement of national hatred) was referred to court. According to the investigators, the defendant posted a video on the website Twitch.com in the period from January 3 to 10, 2017. In this video titled “Disrespect toward the Ukrainian people!” he “incited the public to aggressive actions against the Russians.” The video is not available at this time, but, as we were able to establish, it was a clip from a live stream (live broadcast) of Mikhail Larionov, a player in the online multiplayer game World of Tanks; the clip was 3 minutes and 21 seconds long. During the virtual tank battle, the players spoke in an aggressive tone and used insulting language. We believe that Larionov's statements should be interpreted in the context of the game and considering the typical communication style among players. The principal audience of game streams unambiguously recognizes even aggressive statements as humorous rather than inflammatory. It is unlikely that Larionov intended to provoke national hatred; more likely, he wanted to annoy the other player. We believe that a reasonable and sufficient law enforcement action in this case would have been to warn Larionov and ask him to close public access to the video, since Internet users outside of the gamer community could misinterpret the players’ conversation.
Charges of hooliganism and an attempt to destroy the property of the Tominsky mining and processing plant (GOK) were filed in late February in Chelyabinsk against Hamil Asatullin, an activist of the environmental movement STOP GOK. The charges were based on the fact that, on September 11, 2017, Asatullin, together with Evgeni Medvedev, attached two signs – “Return Money, Bitches!” and “You All Will Die” – to the fence surrounding the site of the mining and processing plant currently under construction near the settlement of Tominsky in the Chelyabinsk Region. In addition, he placed nail-studded wooden planks on a local country road, set fire to one of the timber stacks on the construction site, and, when interrupted by the arrival of the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) personnel, he fired a gas pistol in their direction. The activist is charged under Article 213 Part 2 of the Criminal Code – hooliganism, with the use of items used as weapons, by preliminary conspiracy, motivated by political and ideological hatred towards the management and employees of Tominsky GOK, and related to resisting a government officer in the discharge of his duties. He is also charged under Article 30 Part 3 and Article 167 Part 2 with an attempt, motivated by hooliganism, to destroy and damage private property by arson, which was not brought to completion due to reasons beyond the control of the culprit. We have doubts with regard to some of the charges against Asatullin, namely, that the act of placing signs on the fence was interpreted as hooliganism. It is also unclear to us, what kind of ideological and especially political hatred towards the leadership and employees of the plant was found by the investigation in Asatullin’s actions.
In February, we found information about five cases of prosecution under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for demonstrating Nazi symbols not aimed at propaganda of Nazism, that is, for the act that, in our opinion, should not entail any sanctions. Chita resident Artur Rusu was fined in November for an image depicting “blogger X.” in Nazi uniform; meanwhile, the court ruling mentioned that “he regarded this image as a collective image of movie character Stierlitz.” In January, activist Raisa Pogodaeva from Goryachy Klyuch (the Krasnodar Region) was sentenced, for the second time, to 10 days under arrest for her post about her prior arrest, which was for reposting a video on prosecutions under Article 20.3. Pavel Mikhailichenko, a volunteer of the Navalny headquarters in Maykop, was fined in February for his anti-war post on VKontakte, accompanied by a photo of a car decorated with popular rear window stickers “Thank Grandfather for the Victory!” (Spasibo dedu za pobedu) and “We Can Do It Again” (Mozhem povtorit); the second sticker also included a picture of two stick figures with a hammer-and-sickle and a swastika for heads. Attorney Yuri Ivanov from Cheboksary, who was providing assistance to local representatives of the opposition, was fined for posting on VKontakte a hyperlink to the article “The Second World War: First Salvoes” published on the website Pravoslavie i Mir (pravmir.ru). The hyperlink automatically copied and displayed the illustrations, including the image of Hitler in uniform. A report under Article 20.3 was filed in Pskov against Roman Ladyshchenko, a local activist of the Open Russia (Otkrytaya Rossiya), for sharing, in 2014, the video “Hitler & Putler” – a satire, which compared the political course of the Russian authorities to the policy of the Third Reich.
It is worth noting that, in February, the Arkhangelsk Regional Court overturned the decision of the Isakogorsky District Court, which, a month earlier, fined Mikhail Listov, a volunteer of the Arkhangelsk headquarters of Alexei Navalny, for two VKontakte publications: a 1945 photo of Soviet soldiers throwing Nazi banners to the ground on Red Square during the Victory Parade, and a still from the controversial dance show on the Rossiya 1 TV channel, where one of the participants was wearing Nazi uniform. Possibly, Listov's case, widely publicized via a flash mob launched in his support by Alexei Navalny, led, on February 15, to the fast-track introduction in the State Duma of the above-mentioned bill on amending Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
On the first day of February it was reported that a criminal case under Part 2 of Article 282.2 (participation in the activities of an extremist organization) had been opened in the Kemerovo Region with regard to the activities of the Kemerovo Jehovah's Witnesses community. The case was opened on January 19, and, as early as January 23, searches, guarded by Rosgvardia, were carried out at 15 locations.
A few days later, reports started to appear that a case under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code was opened in connection with the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses community in Belgorod. The police and SOBR conducted searches in at least 16 homes of the believers; the residents were taken to the local department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, fingerprinted and issued summonses for interrogation. Two citizens – Anatoly Shaliapin and Sergei Voikov – were detained for 48 hours as suspects in the case and later released under travel restrictions.
In late February, the Investigative Committee reported a newly opened criminal case under Part 2 of Article 282.2 against a resident of Oryol for participation in the activities of a local Jehovah's Witnesses organization. According to the investigation, “the suspect, being a member of the local religious organization “Jehovah's Witnesses – Oryol,” recognized as extremist and liquidated by the court decision, took part in the religious meeting of the said organization on February 26, 2017, where he delivered a public address that contained propaganda of the superiority of the banned organization.” The name of the suspect has not been published. The local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol was recognized as an extremist by the regional court back in 2016. Dennis Christensen, a citizen of Denmark, has been under arrest in Oryol since May 2017; he was charged with organizing the activities of an extremist organization.
The Prosecutor’s Office of the city of Prokhladny (Kabardino-Balkaria) filed four court claims in February seeking to restrict access to websites that “include various sections, publications, magazines, books, videos, or news about the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses.”
We would like to remind that the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia, along with 395 local religious organizations, was recognized as an extremist organization in April 2017 by the Supreme Court of Russia. In our view, closing down Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations on the charges of extremism, bans against their materials and harassment of their community members have no legitimate justification and constitute a clear manifestation of religious discrimination.
It became known in early February that the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Barnaul received a criminal case under Article 282.2 part 1 of the Criminal Code (involving a person in the activities of an extremist organization), opened against a migrant from Central Asia, born in 1971. According to the investigation, the defendant conducted secret religious meetings with residents of the Altai Region in a café of Central Asian cuisine in Barnaul in 2015, during which he taught them “the fundamental essentials and tenets of the international religious extremist organization Tablighi Jamaat,” basing his teachings on the provisions from the literature placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, among other sources. We view the prohibition against Tablighi Jamaat as unfounded and consider prosecution of its supporters inappropriate as well. Tablighi Jamaat is engaged in peaceful propaganda of Islam.
In early February, a verdict against Ilshat Battalov, a follower of the Islamist radical Hizb ut-Tahrir party, was issued in Kazan. He was found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization) and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment in a maximum security penal colony.
Adkhamdzhon Dzhuraev, arrested in 2017, was charged under Article 205.5 Part 2 (participation in activities of an organization banned for terrorism) and Article 327 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (use of a forged document) in Moscow. His charges include joining the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir and distributing the party materials, as well as using a fake passport.
In the last days of February, Chelyabinsk residents Danis Abdrakhmanov and Ruslan Fatkullin were detained on suspicion of cooperation with Hizb ut-Tahrir; both homes were searched.
We would like to reiterate that we view charges of terrorism against Hizb ut-Tahrir's followers solely on the basis of their party involvement (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) as unjustified.
At the end of February, the Chebarkul City Court of the Chelyabinsk Region issued a suspended sentence of two years' with a two-year probation period to 67-year-old assistant to the Imam of the Al-Amin mosque Kh. Dinmukhametov for distributing the brochure Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and The Reality. The brochure was recognized as extremist in 2015 by the Nizhneserginsky District Court of the Sverdlovsk Region. According to the Prosecutor's Office, Dinmukhametov knew about this decision, but, nevertheless, distributed four copies of the brochure to his acquaintances without informing them of the ban. We believe that the ban against the brochure Women in Islam was not justified. Its author tries to show that Islam gives women more rights and fosters a more respectful attitude toward women than Judaism and Christianity; however, the text is generally written in the spirit of respect for these two religions. Accordingly, we believe that Dinmukhametov was convicted inappropriately.
In February, we learned about several cases of prosecution under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for distribution of religious materials, which, in our opinion, were inappropriately recognized as extremist. In Karachay-Cherkessia, the Zelenchuksky District Court fined local resident Zeitulla Bostanov for keeping at home the banned book The Life of the Prophet by Safi-ur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri“for the purpose of mass distribution.” The Malokarachaevsky District Court imposed a fine on Murat Bostanov, a resident of the village of Uchkeken, for possession of the book The Limit of the Willing [Predel Zhelayushchego] by Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al ash-Sheikh. In addition, in Moscow, the Ostankino District Court issued a fine of 102 thousand rubles to a bookstore for selling a novel (the Russian title is Forcibly Baptized) by 19th century rabbi and writer Marcus Lehmann about the fate of the Jews, who lived in the Middle Ages in Poland and Lithuania, and about persecution and discrimination they experiences.
Prosecutions for Anti-Religious Statements
Earlier this month, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court in Tatarstan sentenced 20-year-old Anton Ushachev, accused of writing insulting graffiti on the fence of the Borovetskaya Church of the Holy Ascension (ROC) and near the well spring. Ushachev was sentenced to 320 hours of community service under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (insulting the feelings of believers) and Article 214 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (vandalism), while the charges under Article 282 Part 1 (the incitement to religious hatred) were dismissed. The court decided that Ushachev acted “with the purpose of insulting the religious feelings of believers,” understanding that many Orthodox faithful come to the church and to the spring (meanwhile, the representatives of the Holy Ascension church declared that “this is just nastiness” and not a serious crime). At the same time, according to the court judgement, the actions in question were motivated by hooliganism, and not by religious hatred or enmity. As a result, the defendant was cleared of charges under Article 282 of the Criminal Code with the right to exoneration, and the prosecution under Article 148 of the Criminal Code was re-qualified from Part 2 to Part 1 (excluding the reference to actions performed in places specifically intended for conducting religious rites). Taking into account the fact that Ushachev have already spent more than six months in custody (first in the pre-trial detention, and then, since December, under house arrest), after the verdict enters into force, the punishment will be considered served. We believe that qualifying Ushachev’s actions under Article 214 of the Criminal Code (in case of establishing a motive of hatred – under Part 2 of this article) would have been sufficient. In our opinion, the concept of “insulting the feelings of believers,” introduced in Parts 1 and 2 of Criminal Code Article 148 is legally meaningless and should be removed from the Code.