Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2019
In March, a package of laws targeting fake news and online expression of obvious disrespect toward the society, the state and public officials was passed by the parliament and signed by the president. Upon request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) will now be able to block “deliberately inaccurate socially significant information disseminated under the guise of reliable messages,” when it presents a threat to citizens, public order, and so on. Registered online media outlets will be given the opportunity to quickly remove such information to avoid blocking. The new laws have introduced administrative responsibility under Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (Abuse of Freedom of Mass Information) in the form of large fines for disseminating “knowingly inaccurate” information. The fines are differentiated depending on the degree of the alleged or actual harm and go up to 1.5 million rubles for legal entities.
Information that expresses clear disrespect for society, the state, state symbols, and authorities “in the indecent form, which insults human dignity and public morality,” will also be blocked. Website owners are given 24 hours to remove such information. Citizens will face administrative punishment for its distribution in the form of fines and/or arrests of up to 15 days under the new parts of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (disorderly conduct).
In our opinion, these laws operate with ambiguous concepts, introduce redundant norms and imply unreasonable interference with the right of Russian citizens to freedom of expression that is clearly aimed at suppressing criticism of the authorities.
Legislative initiatives, adopted and signed in March, also included the law requiring lawyers and accountants to freeze the funds of their clients if the latter were placed on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) list of extremists and terrorists, as well as the law prohibiting persons included on this list from working at nuclear facilities.
In addition, the Russian government adopted a resolution to amend the rules for maintaining the Unified Register of Banned Websites in accordance with the law signed back in December 2018. The resolution gives the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs (Rosmolodezh) the authority to make decisions on blocking “information aimed at encouraging or otherwise involving minors in committing unlawful acts that threaten their lives and (or) health or the lives and (or) health of other persons.” We believe that a wide variety of statements can be classified as information subject to the extrajudicial blocking by the agency; meanwhile, the procedure for accessing a potential threat to someone’s life or health is, apparently, going to be opaque leaving room for arbitrary enforcement.
Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements
Airat Dilmukhametov, an activist of the Bashkir national movement, was arrested in Ufa in mid-March. He was accused of publishing on the Internet calls to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (Article 280.1 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). The law enforcement objections pertain to a video address by Dilmukhametov, in which the latter declared his intention to win the elections for the Head of Bashkortostan and then initiate the renegotiation of the federal agreement between the subjects of the Russian Federation on new terms. We believe that this prosecution against Dilmukhametov is inappropriate. He did not speak about secession from Russia, and his plans appeared exceedingly abstract – he proposed no specific steps to implement his program and did not call for using violence to implement it. From our point of view, only incitement to violent separatism should be prohibited in the interests of maintaining security, while the ban on any public discussion of possible territorial reorganization of Russia unduly restricts the right to freedom of expression. In fact, the current wording of Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits any kind of calls for separatism, allows bringing people to responsibility for discussions of political issues of public interest, therefore we advocate for its amendment.
The Volgograd Regional Court in March fined Alexei Volkov 200 thousand rubles under Article 354.1 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (public desecration of the symbols of Russia's military glory). After the green dye attack against Navalny in 2017, Volkov – the coordinator of Alexei Navalny’s headquarters in Volgograd – published in the Volgograd VKontakte community of Navalny’s supporters a collage of the Motherland Calls statue covered with green dye. We view Volkov’s sentence as inappropriate. The creators and distributors of the collage, obviously, did not intend to express disrespect for the monument and contribute to the rehabilitation of Nazism – on the contrary, they compared the illegal attack against Navalny with an attack against the famous sculpture. From a legal viewpoint, it is not entirely obvious whether distribution of such an image can be considered a desecration of a monument. In addition, the legislation never defines concept of “symbols of Russia's military glory,” used in the wording of Article 354.1 Part 3 of the Criminal Code, so it not clear specifically what objects should be viewed as such.
In early March, we discovered the case, in which Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public demonstration of Nazi symbols) was applied in a manner that we would classify as inappropriate. A court in Chita imposed a fine in the amount of 1.5 thousand rubles on local civic activist Bogdan Akimov after law enforcement agencies found on his social network page two images that included German soldiers and Nazi symbols. The activist claimed that he had saved them several years ago when preparing a history report. The content of his social network page also contains no evidence of any affinity towards the Nazi ideology. Unfortunately, the current Russian legislation allows for punishing any demonstration of Nazi symbols regardless of its context.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
In connection with the partial decriminalization of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred or hostility), the charges in several cases were dropped in March in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic: the prosecution against Arkady Akopyan, a Jehovah's Witness from Prokhladny, was discontinued, and Yury Zalipaev from Maysky had the charges under this article dropped (his case under Article 280 of the Criminal Code for incitement to extremist activities is still ongoing). Yulia Rodionova, a resident of Maysky, was fined back in February under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for the storage of prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses materials.
Meanwhile, however, arrests in new criminal cases under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organization of or participation in an extremist organization) occurred in March in different regions of the country. Investigative actions took place in Severodvinsk (the Arkhangelsk Region), Yalta, Magadan, Zeya (the Amur Region), Luchegorsk (Primorsky Krai; two believers, Yuri Belosludtsev and Sergey Sergeev, were put under arrest there), Kirov, and Emanzhelinsk (the Chelyabinsk Region).
We believe that the decision to recognize Jehovah's Witnesses organizations as extremist was legally unfounded, and, accordingly, the subsequent criminal prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses for continuing the activities of their banned communities have been inappropriate.
In Orenburg, ten followers of the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic movement were found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist organization and participating in it (Article 282.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code). The court sentenced Alexander Shudobaev, who had a prior conviction, to six and a half years in a maximum security colony; the remaining defendants are facing from two to two and a half years in a minimum security penal colony. We regard the ban against Tablighi Jamaat as unjustified, since the movement was engaged in propaganda of its version of Islam and was never implicated in any calls for violence.
In mid-March, a verdict was issued to five followers of the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir from Tatarstan, charged with organizing the activities of a terrorist organization or participating in it (Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code, Parts 1 and 2), as well as with recruiting or other involvement of a person in terrorist activity (Article 205.1 Part 1) and involvement of a minor in the commission of a crime (Article 150 Part 4). Ruslan Sungatov, Rustem Yamaliev, Ilnar Zinnatov, Marat Tulyakov and Irek Nasirov were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 22 years depending on the severity of the charges. The court found all five guilty of organizing and attending Hizb ut-Tahrir meetings in Tatarstan from 2013 to 2017 and recruiting other Muslims to join the organization.
In late March, 24 people were detained and then arrested in Crimea and Rostov-on-Don on charges of organizing the activities of and participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir; many of them were activists of the Crimean Solidarity group.
In our opinion, charging Hizb ut-Tahrir followers with terrorism solely on the basis of their party activities (conducting meetings, reading literature, etc.) is inappropriate. Even though it was recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir has never been implicated in terrorist activities.
Prosecutions for Anti-Religious Statements
We found out in March, that a criminal case under Article 148 Part 1 (insulting the feelings of believers) had been opened in Kirov. The investigation reported that a city resident had posted on the Internet images and captions insulting to Christians and the clergy. We view this prosecution as inappropriate, since we generally recommend that the vague concept of “insulting religious feelings of believers,” which does not have and cannot have a clear legal meaning, be excluded from Article 148 of the Criminal Code. If the defendant’s publications contained insults that could be qualified as “humiliation of dignity based on attitude to religion,” then proceedings under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, rather than criminal prosecution, would have constituted a proportional measure.