Misuse of Anti-Extremism in April 2019

The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia’s anti-extremist legislation in April 2019.


In early April, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) published its legislative proposal, which gives state agencies the powers of expedited extrajudicial suspension for up to ten working days of banking operations which they suspect of being related to financing of terrorist or extremist activities, to organizing and holding of public events in violation of the established procedure or to drug trafficking. Suspension of banking operations is proposed “in cases that are urgent and include sufficient pre-confirmed and documented evidence” in support of this decision. Depending on its specific reason, the decision to suspend financial operations can be made by the heads of the FSB or the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the federal or regional levels, or by their immediate deputies. These officials subsequently notify the Prosecutor General’s Office (which can appeal their decision) and Rosfinmonitoring. After ten days, the suspension of operations can be extended by a court decision based on a statement by the relevant law enforcement agency “until such a decision is revoked in accordance with the law.” Meanwhile, “in order to ensure the sustenance of an individual,” whose financial operations have been suspended, and of the members of his/her family, who have no independent sources of income, the court may assign to this person an allowance not exceeding the subsistence minimum at the expense of his/her own blocked funds.

The draft law proposed by Rosfinmonitoring raises concerns about possible abuses. When extrajudicial mechanisms are used, the likelihood of misapplication is very high; therefore we believe that extrajudicial blocking of monetary funds is unacceptable. Law enforcement agencies will receive another tool for the preventive suppression of undesirable social activity, and the proposed measures will affect not only the participants of such activity, but also their family members. In addition, given the vague wording of the bill, we can expect that, after a ten-day extrajudicial blocking period, a court is going to suspend the banking operations for an unlimited period of time. The relevant court decisions will be based not only on criminal sentences under anti-terrorist and anti-extremist articles that entail the arrest and confiscation of the means of committing a crime, not even on the fact of criminal prosecution (as is currently the case for those added to the Rosfinmonitoring’s “list of terrorists and extremists”), but also on administrative cases or on operational information collected by law enforcement agencies. For example, we can easily surmise that the accounts of activists suspected of organizing unapproved meetings will be blocked simply on the basis of these suspicions.

Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements

In early April, we found out that a new criminal case under Article 354.1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism) was opened against Chuvash opposition blogger Konstantin Ishutov. The new prosecution was based on Ishutov’s LiveJournal publication of “the information and commentaries to it that contained an excuse for the actions of the Nazis during World War II, glorification of the actions of the fascists and belittling of the significance of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War.” In his post, published in June 2010, Ishutov wrote that the Chuvash authorities failed to recognize the fact that the region was a burial place for thousands of German POWs, who had worked at the peat plant in Zavolzhye, and allocated no funds to care for the mass grave. The blogger noted that, on the contrary, it was customary in Germany to look after mass graves, memorials and monuments. In our opinion, Ishutov made no statements justifying the actions of the Nazis either in the text or in the discussion that unfolded under the post. We view the prosecution for the text of the post and the comments to it as unfounded. This criminal case was combined with the earlier one, which was opened against the blogger under the same article in October 2018 for his post containing a Nazi leaflet and a caption: “When the Third Reich cares for the Soviet people more than Putin does for the Russian people.” From our point of view, this episode also gave no reason for criminal prosecution, because Ishutov’s intent was, evidently, not to justify Nazism, but to criticize the policies of the Russian president.

In April, we learned about five cases of prosecution under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for dissemination of oppositional materials or materials allegedly inciting hatred that we view as inappropriately banned. Sergey Sitkov, a resident of Ivanovo, was fined for posting in 2012 on his VKontakte page a video banned in 2017, based on a song by the band Vietnam Rechitatiff. Apparently, another resident of the Ivanovo Region faced the same sanctions for posting the same video a few days later. An activist of the Chelyabinsk ecological movement Stop GOK, known on the social network under the pseudonym Pavel Kamchatny, was fined for publishing the banned satirical poem Last Wish for Ivans. Two residents of Ryazan also faced unfounded administrative charges: I. Vlasov – for keeping in his VKontakte “My Videos” section the documentary Assassination of Russia based on the book by Alexander Litvinenko and Yury Felshtinsky, and recognized as extremist in 2017; V. Khomutsky – for keeping in his “Audio” VKontakte section the satirical song Kill the Cosmonauts by the band Ensemble of Christ the Savior and the Crude Mother Earth, also banned in 2017.

Two Omsk residents were fined in April – in our opinion, inappropriately – under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for displaying Nazi symbols with no intent to promote Nazism. Designer Ilya Frishman was penalized for the fact that, back in 2010, he posted on his VKontakte page a segment from the TV Channel 1 show Big Difference (Bolshaia Raznitsa), which spoofed the movie Seventeen Moments of Spring. The actors who played Müller, Stierlitz and Hitler had visible swastikas on their sleeves. Frishman stated in court that he had never intended to advocate the Nazi ideology and that he was an ethnic Jew and an Israeli citizen, whose ancestors had died at the hands of the Nazis, but the court did not take his arguments into accounts. Claims against Yakov Alexeev, an engineer at the Central Design Bureau of Automation, stemmed from his two posts made in 2017 on VKontakte. One of them was a map of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth, which depicted the USSR and Nazi Germany as the warring parties; the image included the flag of the Third Reich. Another post contained a still frame from a feature film, in which Hitler and Eva Brown were walking up the staircase decorated with a swastika-bearing flag. The posts were not accompanied by any pro-Nazi statements. We believe that the legislation should be amended so that Article 20.29 applies to displaying symbols of banned organizations only when the display is related to promotion of the corresponding ideology.

In late April, the Privolzhsky Federal District Office of Roskomnadzor filed two administrative offense reports under Article 13.15 Part 2 (dissemination of information about an extremist organization without indicating that its activities are prohibited) against the Nizhny Novgorod online media resource KozaPress and its editor-in-chief Irina Murakhtaeva. The charges were based on photographs, reproduced from the site of the Investigation Department of the Russia's Investigative Committee of the Nizhny Novgorod Region. The images included the photographs with the flag of the forbidden organization Misanthropic Division; they were provided in a news release without mentioning this organization or the fact of its ban. We would like to remind that, according to Article 57 of the Law on Mass Media, editors cannot be held responsible for abusing the freedom of mass information if the published information in question originates from press service materials of state agencies.

The “Klishas laws” that prohibit dissemination of information on the Internet expressing disrespect for society and the state as well as dissemination of inaccurate information under the guise of reliable messages, signed into law in March, were applied in April for the first time.

The online portal 76.ru was blocked on the basis of the Prosecutor General’s Office request of April 11. The access has been restored after the editorial board removed a photograph with crude statement about Putin from the news release entitled “A giant derisive graffiti was painted on the police Building – what the hooligans may face.” The Yarkub website was blocked on the same grounds. The restrictions have been lifted, once the editorial office deleted from its site the (already partially retouched) images of the local Ministry of Internal Affairs department building as well as (already modified) references to the graffiti content in the texts of the news releases. In our opinion, the legal norm against insulting the state imposes unjustified and excessive restrictions on criticism of the authorities.

In late April, a report under Article 13.15 Part 10 of Code of Administrative Offenses on the abuse of freedom of mass information was filed against Elena Kalinina, an activist from Arkhangelsk. It was based on Kalinina’s post on her VKontakte page about the planned march against waste disposal in Arkhangelsk on April 7, 2019. The police decided that, since Kalinina had posted information about the events of April 7, while aware that they had not received the permit from the local authorities “and therefore could not have been conducted at the indicated location and route,” she had knowingly disseminated inaccurate socially significant information under the guise of a reliable message. The report’s authors were not concerned by the fact that the unpermitted event, nevertheless, had taken place as announced. Meanwhile, since the event “entailed a massive violation of public order” (blocking traffic on the avenue), Kalinina’s actions were qualified under Article 13.15 Part 10 as leading to interference with the functioning of the transport infrastructure. In our opinion, in this case, instead of the norms governing the procedure for holding public actions, the police attempted to apply the legal norms on fake news, which provide for a larger fine – despite the fact that Kalinina’s message was quite accurate.

Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers

In late April, the Privolzhsky District Military Court sentenced five residents of Almetyevsk (the Republic of Tatarstan) on the charges of involvement in the Islamic religious party Hizb ut-Tahrir, recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization. Anas Gimazetdinov was sentenced to 18 years in a penal colony with subsequent restriction of freedom for one year under Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization). Irek Mukhametov also faces 18 years in a penal colony, with restriction of freedom for one year under Article 205.5 Part 1 and Article 205.1 Part 1 (soliciting, recruiting or other involvement of a person in terrorist activity). Azat Zagiev was sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony under Article 205.5 Part 2 (participating in the activities of a terrorist organization) and Article 205.1 Part 1; Rinat Khannanov and Emil Shangareev – also to 13 years in a maximum security colony under Part 2 of Article 205.5. All five were arrested in October 2017. They were charged for holding meetings that involved reading and discussion of the party literature and for recruiting new members to join Hizb ut-Tahrir. In our opinion, charging Hizb ut-Tahrir followers with terrorism solely on the basis of their party involvement is inappropriate.

A new criminal case was launched in mid-April against Bashkir nationalist Airat Dilmukhametov under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public justification of terrorism on the Internet) and Part 1 of Article 280 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity). According to the available information, the investigation applies Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code based on the fact that Dilmukhametov posted a video about the persecution of Hizb ut-Tahrir members on YouTube on November 6, 2018. He characterized the harsh punishments they face under Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code as unjust, but, at the same time, warned young people against joining the party, criticizing its ideology. Thus, Dilmukhametov did not even agree with the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir, let alone any advocating or justification of terrorist activities – he merely stated that this organization does not resort to terrorist methods of struggle. As for the charges under Article 280 of the Criminal Code, we cannot evaluate the extent of their appropriateness due to our lack of information on the content of the statement; we only know that the statement in question was public and pertained to the Chechens. We view the prior charge against Dilmukhametov under Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code as inappropriate.

We should also note that, in April, we learned about two sentences (in Mordovia and the Tver Region) and one new case (in the Vladimir Region) under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code for propaganda of Islamic terrorism in prisons. We have doubts about the appropriateness of such prosecution, since it is unclear whether private conversations with cellmates or fellow inmates in a colony can be regarded as public propaganda; the audience size for each conversation is not known.

In early April, the Vyborg Town Court fined Magomed Kadyrov under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for allowing the Fortress of a Muslim – a popular collection of prayers for every day recognized as extremist – to be stored in a prayer room in Vyborg. Kadyrov said that he conducted Friday prayers in the prayer room, which had a cabinet with religious literature for visitors. The Fortress of a Muslim had remained in the cabinet for about a year; however, as Kadyrov stated in court, he had not been aware of its ban. From our point of view, the prohibition of the Fortress of a Muslim is inappropriate, since this collection of prayers contains no aggressive appeals. Accordingly, we consider the prosecution against Kadyrov inappropriate as well.

At the same time, the imam of the Ihsan religious organization in Novy Urengoy was found guilty under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses and fined for storing an Islamist brochure entitled 380 Great Sins based on Ibn Hajar al-Haytami’s sixteenth-century treatise, in his mosque. In our opinion, there were no grounds for banning the book that reflects the religious attitudes of its 16th century author; therefore, the imam was fined inappropriately. After the court hearing, Haydar Khafizov – the Mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Yamal – signed a decree “on weekly reviews of literature for the presence of extremist materials and compiling inspection reports in all mosques of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug,” stating that “the easiest way to resolve the issue is to ensure that no other literature except Koran is found in mosques.”

In early April, in the Mezhgorye Closed Administrative-Territorial Unit of Bashkortostan Republic, the Belorechensky Interdistrict Court decided to recognize the book Shura in Bashkortostan by Ishmurat Khaibullin as extremist based on a psychological and linguistic expert opinion, which found the book to contain information aimed at inciting religious hatred and hostility towards non-Muslims and “untrue Muslims.” Khaibullin, a teacher of Arabic and a social and religious Muslim activist, whose views are typical for moderate Salafism, is a former head the Shura of Muslims of the Republic of Bashkortostan – an organization that announced its dissolution in August 2017. Although we do not have confidence in the legality of the goals pursued by the Shura of Muslims of the Republic of Bashkortostan, we believe that the court did not have sufficient grounds for prohibiting Shura in Bashkortostan. In and of itself the book contains no illegal appeals or statements that go beyond permissible criticism or incite hatred.

On April 1, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Oryol delivered a verdict in the case of Sergei Skrynnikov, a Jehovah's Witness charged with participating in an extremist organization (Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code) for continuing the activities of the local Jehovah's Witnesses community recognized as an extremist organization in 2016. The court found him guilty and imposed a fine of 350 thousand rubles. It is worth reminding that, in February, Danish citizen Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing the activities of this community; he was sentenced to six years in prison.

In addition, a number of other criminal cases were initiated against Jehovah's Witnesses in April in various regions of Russia.

• under Article 282.2 Part 1 (organization of the activities of an extremist organization) against two residents of Porkhov, Pskov Region, who were put under travel restrictions);

• under Article 282.3 Part 1 (financing extremist activities) against two residents of Birobidzhan;

• under Article 282.2 Part 1 against two residents of Abakan (Republic of Khakassia);

• under Article 282.2 Part 1: in the Krasnoyarsk Region, a resident of Sharypovo was arrested, and a resident of Minusinsk was put under travel restrictions;

• under Article 282.2 Part 1 and 2 against three people in Novosibirsk: two men were put under house arrest, and a woman was put under travel restrictions;

• under Part 1 of Article 282.2 in Partizansk (Primorsky Krai): a woman was sent to pre-trial detention, a man was put under house arrest.

In addition, in early April, the Investigative Committee of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug announced its refusal to open a criminal case based on the complaints by Jehovah's Witnesses from Surgut on the use of torture against them when, after mass searches on February 15, the detained believers were taken to the building of the Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee office for Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug-Yugra for interrogations. The internal audit conducted by the Investigative Committee found no corpus delicti in the actions of its employees. The Commissioner for Human Rights in Yugra sent to the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug Prosecutor’s Office a request to check the legality of the refusal to open a case. She mentioned the opinion of independent experts, who confirmed that believers had injuries indicating that they had been possibly subjected to torture.

We would like to remind that the decision to recognize the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and 395 local organizations as extremist was made by the Supreme Court of Russia in April 2017; the attempts to challenge it have failed. We believe that this decision, which has served as the basis for initiating criminal proceedings against believers for continuing their religious practice (interpreted as continuing the activities of extremist organizations), was legally unfounded. We regard the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses as a manifestation of religious discrimination.