Misuse of Anti-Extremism in January 2019
The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia’s anti-extremist legislation in January 2019.
On January 24, the State Duma approved in first reading the packages of bills related to indecent behavior on the Internet and to “distribution of inaccurate socially significant information” (i.e. fake news). These legislative initiatives had been introduced by Deputy Dmitry Vyatkin (United Russia) and senators Alexander Klishas and Lyudmila Bokova. Previously, several state agencies and Duma committees criticized various aspects of the Klishas bills, but ultimately gave their positive feedback. We can possibly expect substantial amendments to the text of the draft laws in the second reading. However, we believe that improvements to individual formulas in the Klishas bills will not make the proposed norms expedient. In our opinion, not only do these projects operate with vague concepts, but also introduce redundant norms as well as unwarranted interference with the right of Russian citizens to freedom of expression; besides, their implementation will require extensive funding.
Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements
Criminal cases against three Barnaul residents were discontinued in January. Andrei Shasherin and Maria Motuznaya had been charged under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (insulting the feelings of believers) and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred) for publishing atheistic and xenophobic images; Daniil Markin had been charged with abasement of dignity of Christians under Article 282 Part 1 for publishing anti-Christian memes. In our opinion, the charges against Markin were completely without merit; Motuznaya and Shasherin did publish xenophobic images, but their posts did not give sufficient grounds for prosecution.
In the second half of the month, the Leninsky District Court of Cheboksary decided to release oppositional activist Alexei Mironov from the penal colony. A volunteer of the local Alexei Navalny headquarters, Mironov was sentenced in September 2018 under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity on the Internet) and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement of national hatred) to 2 years 3 months in a penal settlement colony. Due to partial decriminalization of Article 282 Part 1, charges against Mironov under this article were dismissed, and his sentence under Article 280 was reduced to a year and three months already served. In our opinion, the inappropriate charges against the activist were the ones under Article 280 for an abstract anti-government statement; the charges under Article 282 had been filed in connection with a statement asserting the need for the extermination of Muslims.
On January 22, the Investigation Department of the Republic of Kalmykia Investigative Committee announced the opening of a criminal case under Article 318 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (the threat of violence against a representative of the power) and Article 282 Part 2 Paragraph “a” (public prejudice-driven abasement of dignity with the threat of violence) against a 26-year-old Deputy Head of the Priyutny District Municipality Administration. The official was driving while intoxicated and, when stopped, voiced threats and insults against a traffic police officer. We doubt that the actions of the official fell within the scope of Article 282 of the Criminal Code. Since the encounter with the traffic police officer took place at night, it was unlikely to have been witnessed by enough people for the official’s statements to be viewed as public appeals that could possibly lead to the actual consequences (such as use of violence against the officer based on hatred fueled in a certain group of people). In addition, the fact of intoxication should be taken into account during the assessment of the Deputy Head’s possible motive.
It was reported in January that, in early December, the Leninsky District Court of Cheboksary fined local blogger Konstantin Ishutov a thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials). Ishutov tried to protest this decision in the Supreme Court of Chuvashia, but, in the second half of January, his complaint was rejected. The claims by law enforcement agencies pertained to Ishutov’s LiveJournal post of November 2012, which contained the beginning of the announcement about the upcoming (officially permitted) Russian March in Cheboksary. The complete announcement was posted on the Cheboksar?NET website, also by Ishutov. The incriminating text referred to the Russian March slogans, including the slogan “Russian Power for Russia,” added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials in 2018. The list of slogans was taken from the notice of the public event, which was posted on the website along with the news announcement but did not make it to Ishutov's blog. We believe that prosecution for the fact of mentioning a banned slogan is absurd, especially if it has been mentioned for the purpose of providing information about the nature of an upcoming event. Ishutov’s post can also be perceived as an advertisement for an event with a deliberately xenophobic agenda. However, both the event and the slogan “Russian Power for Russia” were permitted by the authorities at that time. It should be noted that prosecution for citing prohibited slogans seems to be the “hobbyhorse” of the Chuvash law enforcement, which had previously charged several local activists for mentioning the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death.”
On January 30, a Kostroma blogger, who did not wish to disclose his name, reported to the media that, the day before, he was fined a thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for posting two videos on VKontakte. According to the blogger, the police report mentioned two videos uploaded to the social network in 2014, one of which featured a rap battle between two characters resembling Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler. Evidently, the video in question is “The Great Rap Battle: Putin against Hitler,” which had been recognized as extremist. We consider the ban against this video inappropriate, since its authors did not advocate Nazism, but only criticized Putin’s policies and ridiculed the mutual accusations of fascism traded between Russia and Ukraine. The second video that became the basis for the prosecution was, apparently, xenophobic.
The Achinsky District Court of the Krasnoyarsk Region fined local anarcho-communist Ivan Kovalyov one thousand rubles under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda or demonstration of Nazi symbols) for sharing an image on a VKontakte community wall. The image is popular on social networks and depicts the Nazi eagle with a swastika in its paws next to the Post of Russia emblem, suggesting some similarities between the two. We believe that Kovalyov was prosecuted inappropriately, since the demonstration of Nazi symbols in this case was not aimed at promoting the corresponding ideology. The prosecution is made possible by the deficiencies of the current Russian legislation, which allows punishment for any demonstration of Nazi symbols without considering its context.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
In January, we learned that, on December 24 of last year, the local FSB administration for the Sakhalin Region opened a criminal case under Part 1 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activity of an extremist organization) against Nevelsk resident Sergei Kulakov. According to the FSB, in the fall of 2017, he was engaged in “leading a religious group that consisted of Nevelsk residents practicing the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, providing material and other support to the group’s activities, convening relevant meetings, worship, ensuring religious rites and ceremonies, teaching of the religion and religious education.” Additionally, searches and interrogations were conducted at 11 locations in Nevelsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and the village of Nogliki on January 20; everyone was released after the interrogation.
On January 21, a follower of Jehovah's Witnesses from Blagoveshchensk was detained at a Moscow airport. He was charged in a criminal case opened under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code and put under travel restrictions.
On January 28, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Ivanovo put 32-year-old Evgeniy Spirin, charged under the same article, under arrest for two months. Spirin was accused of resuming and continuing the activities of the local Jehovah's Witnesses organization. According to the investigation, he “convened and held meetings of this organization and carried out religious conversations with residents of the Ivanovo region in order to promote it.”
We believe that the decision to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia and the 395 local Jehovah's Witnesses organizations as extremist was legally unfounded, and, accordingly, the subsequent criminal prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses for continuing the activities of their banned communities has been inappropriate.
On January 22, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea sentenced Renat Suleymanov, convicted of organizing the activities of the extremist organization Tablighi Jamaat, under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to four years of imprisonment in a minimum security colony and a year of restriction of freedom. Talyat Abdurakhmanov, Seyran Mustafaev and Arsen Kubedinov, convicted under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activity of an extremist organization), received a suspended sentence of two and a half years of imprisonment with restriction of freedom for one year and a probation period of two years. Tablighi Jamaat was banned in Russia in 2009. We consider this ban inappropriate, since the movement was engaged in propaganda of Islam and not implicated in any calls for violence; therefore, we view prosecution of its supporters for continuing its activities as unjustified.
We found out in January that, on December 13, 2018, the Moscow District Military Court, at its visiting session in Vologda, sentenced inmate Zikrullokhon Rakhmonkhodzhaev to 14.5 years in a minimum-security penal colony. He was convicted under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code for participation in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a radical Islamic party, which is recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization. Earlier, in 2014, Rakhmonkhodzhaev was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security colony under Article 282.2 Part 2, Article 30 Part 1, Article 278 (preparation for forcible seizure of power) and Article 222 Part 1 (illegal acquisition and storage of ammunition and explosives) of the Criminal Code. Prior to his new verdict, he was serving his sentence in a colony in the Vologda Region.
On January 30, the Privolzhsky District Military Court found Ainaz Yanyshev guilty under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code for participating in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir and sentenced him to seven years of imprisonment to be served in a maximum-security penal colony.
The ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, in our view, lacked justification and charging its followers with terrorism solely on the basis of their party activities (for example, discussion or distribution of literature) is inappropriate.
It was reported in January that, in December of 2018, the Office of the Ministry of Justice in the Republic of Crimea submitted to the Crimean Central Bar Association of the City of Simferopol a motion to eliminate the violations of the law. The Bar Association was co-founded by Emil Kurbedinov, a well-known lawyer previously fined twice under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda or demonstration of symbols of banned organizations) for sharing videos with Hizb ut-Tahrir symbols on VKontakte and on Facebook. The videos were posted prior to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, when Ukrainian legislation, then in effect on the territory of the peninsula, allowed the organization to operate. The Ministry of Justice indicated that according to the law “On Non-Profit Organizations” “a person, with respect to whom a court decision that entered into legal force has established that their actions contain signs of extremist activity, cannot be a founder (member) of a non-profit organization” and ordered the Association to exclude Kurbedinov from the ranks of its founders and members.
Evidently, the activity of a person facing either criminal or administrative sanctions imposed under anti-extremist articles can be regarded as extremist. In practice, however, so far, only criminal sentences for extremism-related offenses were taken into account. In our opinion, the vague wording on the presence of signs of extremist activity in one’s actions, used in the laws “On Public Associations,” “On Non-Profit Organizations” and “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” should be amended; it can now lead to such severe consequences as banning citizens from participation in associations following an administrative offense. Meanwhile, the law on mass media only prohibits the citizens, who are serving prison sentences or have a previous conviction for “committing crimes related to extremist activity,” to act as founders and editors-in-chief of media outlets.
In the second half of January, the Krasnoglinsky District Court of Samara began its consideration of the claim to recognize a number of Islamic religious books as extremist. The case, filed by the Samara Regional Prosecutor's Office, entered the court system on June 13, 2018. The texts include interpretations of the Quran by ibn Kathir and as-Sa'di, as well as the books from “Die Bedeutung des Korans” series (Russian version). According to the prosecutors, all these materials were confiscated in a prayer house in the village of Krasny Pakhar in the Samara region, in the course of a search related to the “underground Salafi cell” case reported by the local FSB administration. The lawsuit is based on the results of linguistic expertise performed in March 2018 by the FSB administration of the Samara Region. According to the Prosecutor's Office, the experts found “extremist statements aimed at inciting hatred, enmity or discord on the basis of religion (in relation to the following groups: “Jews,” ”Christians,” ”non-believers”)” in the books submitted for their review. The Central Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia supported the prosecutorial claims, while the Council of Muftis of Russia, together with the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, issued a statement against recognizing as-Sa’di’s Quran Tafsir in Elmir Kuliev’s translation as extremist. The interests of the publishing houses that have published the books in question are represented by a group of well-known lawyers, previously involved in other cases related to the bans against Islamic literature. We had no opportunity to get acquainted with all the writings found objectionable by the Samara Prosecutor’s Office, but we found no signs of extremism in the ibn Kathir’s Tafsir, which is also under review in this case; the references to calls for fighting against the infidels and to negative statements about non-believers contained in the Quran should not, in our opinion, be interpreted as direct aggressive appeals that pose a threat to followers of other religions. Meanwhile, as-Sa’di’s Tafsir contains a number of statements, freely interpreting the verses of the Koran, which can be understood as an approval of military jihad.
We would like to remind that the prior notorious attempts to ban the Quran in Kuliev’s translation and a collection of Quranic verses led to protests by Muslims; subsequently, a law was passed to prohibit the recognition of the scriptures of the world's religions as extremist. The courts banned a number of hadith collections despite the believers’ discontent. In addition, Kuliev’s book about the Quran was banned in Omsk.
Prosecution for Anti-Religious Statements
In mid-January, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Ryazan levied a fine on Anatoly Tyurmin in the amount of 1,500 rubles under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code. Tyurmin was fined for sharing on his personal VKontakte page the text of the song “Kill the Cosmonauts” by the band “Ensemble of Christ the Savior and the Crude Mother Earth,” which was recognized as extremist – in our opinion, without any reason. We believe that the charges against Tyurmin are inappropriate. “Kill the Cosmonauts” is obviously a satirical song that ridicules obscurantism and primitive religiosity; its calls to murder cosmonauts for “climbing the sky” should not be taken seriously.