Misuse of Anti-Extremism in April 2018
A new version of the bill by deputies Sergei Boyarsky and Andrei Alshevskikh (United Russia) on combating illegal content on social networks was introduced in the State Duma in April and adopted in the first reading. The bill introduces a new concept of “public network owner.” Its insufficiently precise definition leaves room for interpretation – such networks can be understood to include not only social networks, but any network platform where users can leave comments and generally exchange messages – all the way to instant messengers, e-mail services, online games, and so on. Owners of such “public networks,” whose audience in Russia exceeds one hundred thousand users are obligated to open their representative offices on the Russian territory in order to address user complaints about illegal content (including materials aimed at promoting war or inciting hatred) and remove it within 24 hours. In addition, “public networks” are required to abstain from participation in dissemination of the following: false information on the issues of social importance, any secrets protected by the law, extremist materials, propaganda of violence and cruelty, pornography, and even materials containing obscene language. The public networks will also have to observe restrictions stipulated by the legislation on elections and referendums. The network owners will have to provide Roskomnadzor with access to the incoming complaints. The agency will be able to identify illegal information and require that the network owner eliminate violations within 24 hours; it can also order the illegal content removed upon request from the authorized state agencies. If a network owner refuses to comply with these requests, Roskomnadzor will initiate blocking of the content in question, and, if the court determines that a “public network” has refrained from blocking the content on two separate occasions, the network itself will also be blocked. In addition, the amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, adopted in the first reading, specify multimillion-dollar fines for non-compliance with the requirements of the proposed law. From our point of view, the amendments of Boyarsky and Alshevskikh imply a total extension of the extra-judicial mechanism for blocking information on the Internet; they impose on the owners of “public networks” an obligation to perform judicial functions and, de-facto, aim to use the owners as instruments for implementing the state censorship. We covered the bill in greater detail here.
Blocking Online Resources
On April 13, the Tagansky District Court of Moscow satisfied the Roskomnadzor’s claim to block Telegram’s instant messaging service and ordered the agency directly to immediately preclude the technical conditions that were making Telegram’s operations possible. Access restrictions are to remain in place until the owners of the service comply with the requirement to share the encryption keys to the users’ correspondence with the FSB. The provision, requiring messengers to provide the FSB with the encryption keys, became the law in 2016 as part of the Yarovaya Package. Telegram has declared this request to be unconstitutional, not legally sound, and also technically impossible as the messenger uses end-to-end encryption (when the encryption keys are stored only by users and deleted at the end of communication). In October 2017, the messenger was fined 800,000 rubles for failure to comply with the FSB’s demands. The attempts to appeal the decision have failed; the attempts of the Telegram’s representatives to revoke the order on transferring the keys in court were also unsuccessful.
Throughout late April, Roskomnadzor was taking active measures to block Telegram. Since the messenger was using dynamic IP-addresses, blocking it proved impossible; meanwhile many other services, including Google, suffered from significant loss of accessibility, but Roskomnadzor has not abandoned its efforts.
Тhe Practice of the European Court of Human Rights
On April 17, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a decision regarding the complaint of 24 former members of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), who participated in an action of protest held in the waiting area of the Presidential Administration building in Moscow on December 14, 2004. The Court found that Article 6 (the right to a fair trial), 10 (the right to freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated with respect to the applicants. Russia is to pay 12.5 thousand euros of compensation to each of the former NBP activists. In total, 39 people were convicted in the case of the occupation of a room in the Presidential Administration’s Office (31 activists received suspended sentences, and eight received real prison terms); they were found guilty of participation in mass riots (Article 212 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). In our opinion, this verdict was inappropriate – the events occurring inside one room can hardly be classified as mass riots. In addition, the actions of the National Bolsheviks were not accompanied by “violence, pogroms, arson, destruction of property, use of firearms, explosives or explosive devices, as well as armed resistance to a representative of the authorities,” as described in the provisions of Article 212.
Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements
Yet another case against Alexander Byvshev, a poet from Kromy (the Oryol Region), was initiated in early April under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement to ethnic hatred or enmity, as well as humiliation of human dignity). He is charged for publishing on the site orlec.ru his poems “The Russian spirit” and “A Mighty Pile,” which contained “utterances, derogatory in character, against a particular ethnic group.” Byvshev published these poems in September 2017 in the comments to the article about a garbage pile in a building courtyard in Oryol. The author mocks the Russians’ disinclination for cleanliness and order and speaks of his fellow citizens in unflattering terms, but, in our opinion, either poem contains nothing that could serve as the basis for criminal prosecution under Article 282 of the Criminal Code.
On April 9, the court passed a verdict in another Byvshev case, pertaining to the publication of his poem “On the Independence of Ukraine.” The poet was sentenced under Article 282 of the Criminal Code to 330 hours of community service with a three-year ban on teaching. In our opinion, this poem contains statements that can be interpreted as humiliating for residents of Russia. However, the poem’s intent is political, not xenophobic. We also believe that humiliation of dignity should be excluded from the Criminal Code as an act of minor gravity.
It is also worth reminding that Byvshev was sentenced to 300 hours of community service in 2015 for publishing his poem “To Ukrainian Patriots” (the verdict has been appealed in the ECHR). In addition, another case against him has been opened under Article 294 of the Criminal Code (obstruction of preliminary investigation).
In Velikiye Luki of the Pskov Region, 21-year-old gamer Mikhail Larionov received a 2-year suspended sentence under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. In January, Larionov posted on Twitch.com a clip from a live stream of the multiplayer game World of Tanks. In this video titled “Disrespect toward the Ukrainian people!” he “incited the public to aggressive actions against the Russians.” We believe that Larionov’s statements should be interpreted in the context of the game and the communication style typical 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 taunt 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.
In April, we learned of one new instance of inappropriate prosecution for public display of Nazi symbols (Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses). On February 19, the Proletarsky District Court of the Tver Region put local resident Dmitry Grizan, who had a prior conviction under Article 282, was put under arrest for three days for publishing on VKontakte two images that included swastikas. The first image was of a “flag that can offend everyone at once” (combining the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement, the Confederate flag, the Nazi swastika, the Star of David and the pentagram), and the second one included the meme “We can do it again. 1941-1945” (most likely, in a satirical context). Neither image is intended as propaganda of Nazi ideology.
A positive example of handling such cases is also worth reporting. On April 3, the Pskovsky District Court of the Pskov Region discontinued for lack of corpus delicti the case of Andrei Egorov, who had published on VKontakte a historical photograph from the Great Patriotic War period. The photograph depicted a priest of the Pskov Orthodox mission shaking hands with a German officer against the background of a swastika-decorated banner.
In late April, the Pskovskaia Gubernia newspaper received a warning from the Pskov Regional Department of Roskomnadzor. The Department found “signs of extremism” – specifically, a deliberately false public accusation of extremist activities against a public official – in a text pertaining to the “voters’ strike.” Probably, the alleged offense was found in the phrases “Vladimir Putin has usurped the power” or “Putin re-confirms himself in office.” The interpretation of these statements as accusing Putin of violent change of the foundations of the constitutional system of Russia should be recognized as excessively broad. In addition, the clause of the Law on Combating Extremist Activity that classifies the charges of this nature as extremism, is questionable in and of itself.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
In April, criminal proceedings under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of an extremist organization and participating in it) were initiated in four regions of Russia in connection with the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses – Anatoly Vilitkevich from Ufa and Valentin Osadchuk from Vladivostok – were arrested; 33-year-old Igor Morozov from Shuya in the Ivanovo Region was put under travel restrictions; two local residents were detained and later arrested in Polyarny, the Murmansk Region. These are the first arrests, based on the 2017 court decision to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia and all 395 local organizations affiliated with it. We believe that this decision and the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in general, have no legitimate justification and constitute a clear manifestation of religious discrimination.
On April 3, the Sovetsky District Court of Kazan put under arrest Tagir Salimov and Marat Nazmiev, supporters of the banned Tablighi Jamaat movement; they face charges under Article 282.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code.
On April 5, the Nikulinsky District Court of Moscow received the case of six Tablighi Jamaat supporters: Ali Azhiev, Zhyldyzbek Ismailov, Kunan Turdimatov, Maksat Berdikulov, Ali Zulushev and Ya. Murakhmedov. All of them were charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
We view the prohibition against Tablighi Jamaat in Russia as unjustified. Tablighi Jamaat is engaged in propaganda of fundamentalist Islam, but has never been known to call for violence. Therefore, we consider persecution of its supporters inappropriate.
On April 2, 2018, the Moscow District Military Court reconsidered the case of Altynbek uulu Abdymanap and Khotamzhon Karimov, followers of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party, and sentenced them to 10 and 11 years of imprisonment in a maximum-security colony under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of a terrorist organization and participating in it), thus repeating the verdict, which had been repealed by the Supreme Court.
On April 24, 2018, 14 Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters were detained in Kazan in connection with a criminal case opened under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 205.5. All of them were put under arrest.
We believe that charging Hizb ut-Tahrir followers with terrorism solely on the basis of their party involvement (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) and prosecuting them under anti-terrorist articles is inappropriate.
One case of administrative prosecution for the distribution of inappropriately prohibited Muslim literature was reported in April. On April 10, the Neverkinsky District Court of the Penza Region fined 44-year-old Uzbek citizen Ruslan Zhumaev one thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (storing extremist materials with intent of mass distribution) for attempting to make photocopies of the Fortress of a Muslim. This book is a collection of prayers for every day, which contains no aggressive appeals.
Prosecutions for Anti-Religious Statements
In early April, we learned that the investigation has been completed in the case, initiated under Article 148 part 1 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing obvious disrespect for society and committed in order to insult religious feelings of believers) against Irkutsk anarchist Dmitry Litvin for publishing on a social network a photo showing the middle finger and a church in the background. In our opinion, there are no grounds for prosecuting Litvin – the photo he had published may be unpleasant for believers, but his actions presented no danger to the public. We opposed the amendments, which introduced “insulting the feelings of believers,” into the composition of Article 148 of the Criminal Code, because we are convinced that this vague notion has no clear legal meaning, and absurd litigation cases on religious matters undermine the authority of the judicial system.
The investigative agencies in Krasnodar dropped the case of Maxim Drozdov, charged with humiliating the dignity of atheists (under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code). The case was initiated in connection with the publication of his satirical poem “The Heretic.” The investigator found that the poem had no purpose of inciting hatred (since “it was Drozdov’s act of self-expression”) was ironic in character and contained no calls “for any specific actions.”