Misuse of Anti-Extremism in May 2019
A package of bills, introduced in the State Duma in mid-May, seeks to criminalize dissemination of information that can facilitate the imposition of sanctions against the Russian state, citizens or organizations. Its author, Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov (A Just Russia), proposed banning collection, transmission and dissemination of information that might lead to the introduction of sanctions against Russia and Russians, as well as information on their non-compliance with the sanctions. The draft legislation introduces criminal liability for disseminating, in mass media or on the Internet, secrets protected by law or any other information that contributes to the imposition of sanctions. The bill’s author believes that the Criminal Code needs a new article (Article 281.1) stipulating punishment of up to five years of imprisonment with a fine of up to five million rubles and a ban on certain activities for up to five or ten years, depending on the circumstances. In addition, Yemelyanov proposes augmenting Article 128.1 of the Criminal Code (libel) with a new part that will impose a fine of up to 5 million rubles or imprisonment for up to five years for libel directed against persons subjected to sanctions or libel that becomes a basis for imposing sanctions. In our opinion, Yemelyanov’s proposals pertaining to dissemination of information, which does not contain personal data or secrets specifically protected by law, directly contradict Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees freedom of speech and mass information. The proposed legislation also opens the possibility of criminal prosecution for acts committed without criminal intent. Furthermore, it is unclear what methods are suggested for establishing the fact that the dissemination or transfer of information has really contributed to the imposition of sanctions.
The Practice of the European Court of Human Rights
We found out in May that, on April 30, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a ruling with regard to the complaints by Syktyvkar activist Grigory Kablis regarding the refusal to authorize a picket-style protest, extrajudicial blocking of three posts on the 7x7 website and blocking his VKontakte account for publishing the information about a planned public event. The court found that Russia had violated Article 10, 11 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to an effective remedy and ordered Russia to pay Kablis 12.5 thousand euros in compensation for non-pecuniary damage and 2.5 thousand euros for legal expenses.
In addition, the ECHR recognized the very mechanism of extrajudicial blocking of information under the so-called Lugovoy’s Law, documented in Article 15.3 of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection,” as non-compliant with the Convention. In particular, the court noted that this article contains an excessively broad formula of the prohibition to disseminate information about events held in violation of the law; according to the current wording and in the absence of interpretations by the Supreme and Constitutional Courts even the most insignificant procedural violation in this area may cause blocking of posts on the Internet. Moreover, the Prosecutor General’s Office may block a website or a social network account that includes illegal material without considering whether blocking the entire website or the entire account has been necessary. Meanwhile, the obligation to investigate this issue directly follows from the Convention and the ECHR law-enforcement practice. At the same time, according to the ECHR, the excessively wide discretion of the Prosecutor General’s Office hampers the courts in providing an effective review of such decisions.
Additionally, the Strasbourg Court noted that, given the circumstances such as the one month period allotted for consideration of complaints, ban on inviting people to participate in a rally until a permit is received, and the short period of time allowed for receiving such a permit, there is no guarantee that a complaint about the blocked information regarding an event would be reviewed before the scheduled date of the said event, while, after this date, the revision of the decision to block the information becomes irrelevant.
Prosecutions for Incitement to Hatred and Oppositional Statements
The process of reviewing sentences imposed under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred), which was partially decriminalized at the beginning of the year, continued in May. In particular, early in the month, “Pokemon catcher” Ruslan Sokolovsky convicted under Part 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code, Part 1 of Article 148 of the Criminal Code (public actions aimed at insulting the feelings of believers) and Article 138.1 of the Criminal Code (illegal trafficking of special technical equipment intended for secretly obtaining information) was released from prison. In mid-May, nationalist Vladimir Timoshenko, previously convicted of inciting hatred towards the social group “employees of government institutions and agencies,” had his conviction expunged.
At the same time, we encountered the first cases of the application of Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses – the norm that partially replaced Article 282 part 1 – which can be classified as inappropriate. In early May, FC CSKA fan Yevgeny Ogurtsov from Novocheboksarsk, who had published a collection of his own poetry and advertised it on VKontakte, was fined 10,000 rubles. A number of his poems contained unflattering expressions addressed to players and fans of FC Spartak. We had no opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the content of Ogurtsov's poems. However, in our opinion, the players and fans of FC Spartak do not form a vulnerable social group that is subject to special protection against manifestations of hatred, and, unless Ogurtsov had called for violent actions against them, there was no reason to prosecute him.
In Ust-Ilimsk of the Irkutsk Region, the case under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses was opened against Vladimir Ivaschenko, the former head of the local branch of the Young Guard of United Russia, who characterized his fellow town residents as a “narrow-minded herd” and “cattle” for choosing Anna Schekina, a candidate from the LDPR, as the town mayor; he also made some unflattering comments about her personally. Ivaschenko later apologized for these statements, but Yaroslav Mikhailov, a lawyer from Kirov, nevertheless, filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office. We believe that the town residents should not be classified as a particularly vulnerable group of people, who require protection from incitement to hatred. We generally advocate for excluding the vague term “social group” from Article 282 of the Criminal Code and Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, because its presence is fraught with abuse. In its decision to initiate a case, the Prosecutor’s Office has stated that resolving the question of whether Ivaschenko’s statements humiliated the dignity of Ust-Ilimsk residents and whether these residents form a social group required “conducting an administrative investigation including analysis and expert examination.”
In early May, self-employed businesswoman Elena Smolova was fined 3,000 rubles in Nizhny Novgorod under Article 20.3 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (sale of Nazi paraphernalia or symbols for propaganda purposes), although she had never advocated Nazi ideology. Her shop was selling St. George ribbons with a button that depicted the red star breaking the Nazi swastika.
An 18-year-old resident of Vladikavkaz was fined in May under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public demonstration of Nazi symbols) for posting on his VKontakte page the satirical video “Hitler and Skype” – a movie fragment from the Bunker with a superimposed 2009 soundtrack, which does not advocate Nazism in any way. In late May, a report under the same article was compiled against Novocheboksarsk resident Ilnur Kamaldinov, who posted an image of a tea package with the caption “Princess Zyga. Selected Aryan” and a swastika (Kamaldinov was fined 1.5 thousand rubles in early June). This publication can be interpreted as intolerant humor and regarded as unethical, but it hardly merits prosecution, since Kamaldinov evidently does not support neo-Nazi views and had no intention to advocate Nazism.
The Sovetsky District Prosecutor in the city of Omsk provided what we view as a positive example of an approach towards prosecution of citizens under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The prosecutor appealed the court decision to punish designer Ilya Frishman, for keeping on his social media page a number of humorous videos that used a swastika: a spoof of the colorized version of the movie Seventeen Moments of Spring created by the TV Channel 1 show Big Difference (Bolshaya Raznitsa) and fragments from the Bunker with a modified soundtrack. Since local representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs disagreed with the prosecutor’s (and Frishman’s) opinion, the regional court ordered an expert examination of the videos.
In May, we also witnessed the developing enforcement of the “Klishas’ law,” which banned dissemination on the Internet of information expressing disrespect for the society and the state.
Kirill Poputnikov, who published on Facebook a photo of graffiti with insult against Vladimir Putin painted on the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, was fined 30,000 rubles in mid-May in Yaroslavl under Article 20.1 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (two Yaroslavl news resources were added to the Unified Register of Banned Websites in April for distribution of the same image). In the village of Verkhovazhye of the Vologda Region, a report under the same article was compiled against local resident Yuri Shadrin, who set his VKontakte status to “Putin is a real f***head, not fantastic.”
A report under the same article was compiled in late May against Leonid Volkov – an associate of Alexey Navalny, who published a tweet with a link to the recording of the court resolution announcement in the case of Yury Kartyzhev (punished for the phrase “Putin is a fantastic f***head”) and quoted the actual insult. The court returned the Volkov case materials to the police in early June for elimination of the shortcomings. A report against Sergei Komandirov was compiled in Smolensk for publishing a comment that contained the text “Check it out – they won’t have the guts to punish everyone. So let’s go flash mobbing,” and the image of Putin with an obscenity-containing caption “Every citizen knows who is *** No. 1.”
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
As we found out in May, the Laishevsky District Court of the Republic of Tatarstan had started the proceedings to recognize six Islamic religious books as extremist. The books include three volumes of the Methodical Interpretation of the Holy Qur’an by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Nasir as-Sa'di (Tafsir as-Sa’di) translated by Elmir Kuliev and three hadith collections: Sahih al-Bukhari as summarized by al-Zubaidi, The Gardens of the Righteous by an-Nawawi and Bulugh Al-Maram by al-Asqalani. In our opinion, attempts to prohibit hadith collections, including a shortened version of the most authoritative Sahih al-Bukhari collection, constitute an obvious mistake of the authorities, which discredits them in the eyes of Muslims. Modern notions of tolerance are not applicable to medieval Islamic literature, since it describes the era of religious wars and reflects the attitudes of that era. Such topics as jihad (including in the sense of waging a faith-based war), a cruel medieval punishment system or hostility toward “non-Muslims, Jews and Christians” form an integral part of this literature. Translations and comments to all three Hadith collections are, in our opinion, quite neutral and also cannot serve as a basis for recognizing these publications as extremist. Tafsir as-Sa’di, written in the first half of the 20th century, contains repeated calls for an aggressive war against non-believers; however, it is questionable whether such appeals, made a century ago, constitute the grounds for refusal by modern publishers of religious literature to publish an authoritative interpretation of the Quran. We believe that current mechanism for banning materials, which does not allow for taking into account the purpose and context of publication, is not justifiable – the fight should not be against the materials per se, but against the actions of propaganda purveyors, who use a variety of tools including religious literature in order to justify xenophobic violence in the modern world.
As we learned in early May, a criminal case was initiated back in April in Novy Urengoy (Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District) under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (justification of terrorism on the Internet) against Dmitry Chernomorchenko, the creator and editor-in-chief of the Voice of Islam online portal. The prosecution was triggered by the article Aleppo Fell: Lessons and Conclusions, published by the Voice of Islam on December 13, 2016. The case was based on the conclusion by an expert, who discovered signs of justifying the activities of the banned Islamic State in the author’s assertion that blaming this organization for Aleppo’s fall was meaningless, because, during the hostilities, the Islamic State fighters had, in fact, supported an “unspoken truce” with Assad. In our opinion, the expert’s interpretation is hardly reasonable, especially since the author criticizes all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State, and does not call for any violence, let alone terrorism.
In May, we received new information about the persecution of the followers of the Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Siberia and the Far East. Krasnoyarsk resident Denis Zhukov was, once again, charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participating in the activities of an extremist organization). Previously, his case had been returned to the investigation by the prosecutor. Meanwhile, the case of Yevgeny Sukharev, charged under the same article, was returned by the Sharypovo District Court of the Krasnoyarsk Region to the prosecutor back in February.
Meanwhile, in Khabarovsk, the sanctions in the form of a fine and deportation from Russia under the Article 18.8 Part 1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (violation by a stateless person of the rules for staying in the Russian Federation, manifesting itself in the absence of the documents proving right to stay) were imposed on Yevgeny Kim after his release from a penal colony. A Said Nursi follower, Kim had been previously convicted under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization) and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. While he was incarcerated, the internal affairs authorities invalidated the 2005 decision to grant him the citizenship of the Russian Federation. This possibility of depriving people, convicted under a number of anti-extremist and anti-terrorist articles (including under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code), of their citizenship appeared in 2017. Thus, Kim has become stateless; as of late May, he was awaiting deportation to his birth country of Uzbekistan.
We found out in late May that the Orenburg Regional Court toughened the sentences of ten followers of the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic movement, who had been given real incarceration terms under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 282.2. For Alexander Shudobaev, sentenced to six and a half years in a penal colony, the wording of his three-year ban on work in religious organizations became more expansive. All ten offenders received harsher additional punishments in the form of restriction of freedom – they have been forbidden from leaving their places of residence between 10 pm and 6 am. Tablighi Jamaat was banned in Russia in 2009. The movement was engaged in the propaganda of Islam and was never implicated in any calls for violence, therefore we view its prohibition and persecution of its supporters as unjustified.
Four Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested in late April – early May in Smolensk in a new case, initiated under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. In mid-May, the court sent two more women to pre-trial detention on similar charges. Four additional believers were arrested in Volgograd. A new defendant was added in the case of continuing the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses community in Ulyanovsk (a preventive measure was imposed in the form of a ban on certain activities). In late May, three Jehovah's Witnesses from Rostov-on-Don were arrested in a new criminal case. In Kirov, the third criminal case on the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses was initiated.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the cases of Jehovah's Witnesses Alexander Solovyov (Perm), Sergey Klimov (Tomsk), Viktor Trofimov and Roman Markin (Polarny, the Arkhangelsk Region) was completed in May. The regional court upheld the sentence to Dennis Christensen, convicted in Oryol for organizing activities of an extremist organization.
In May, the total number of Jehovah's Witnesses who are facing criminal prosecution in Russia exceeded 200 people.
In addition, we learned that a Jehovah's Witness from Karachay-Cherkessia was fined in March under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
We would like to remind that the decision to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center of in Russia and 395 local organizations as extremist was made by the Supreme Court of Russia in April 2017, and the attempts to challenge it were unsuccessful. We believe that this decision, which served as the basis for initiating criminal proceedings against believers for continuing their religious practice (charging them with continuing the activities of extremist organizations), had no legal basis, and we view prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses as a manifestation of religious discrimination.
In late May, the Samara Regional Court recognized the Allya-Ayat (Elle-Ayat) religious group as an extremist organization. Natalia Shaikina, the head of this religious group, was fined in December 2018 under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for distributing the Zvezda Selennoi magazine. Members of the community reportedly continued to distribute the magazines; in addition, the religious group failed to notify the Ministry of Justice about the beginning of its work. In our opinion, while the state may have grounds for banning the Allya-Ayat communities and initiating administrative and criminal prosecution of the organizers, recognizing materials from Zvezda Selennoi issues as extremist and Allya-Ayat religious groups as extremist organizations is inappropriate. Despite the fact that Zvezda Selennoi contains negative remarks about the world religions, it does not feature any aggressive appeals against their followers. Propaganda of the superiority of adherents of a particular teaching is characteristic of most religious movements and should not, in and of itself, serve as the basis for banning religious associations as extremist.
Prosecution for Anti-Religious Statements
In late May, the report under Art 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (desecration of religious symbols or attributes) was compiled against Novocheboksarsk resident Ilnur Kamaldinov, mentioned above. The charges were based on the memes, posted in 2014 and 2016 and recently discovered on his VKontakte page by law enforcement agencies. The memes included a photo of Patriarch Kirill with the caption “Thanks are fine, paying the church is better” and a photo of a religious procession captioned “The nuthouse is out for a walk under the supervision of orderlies.” We believe that posting crude atheistic images and texts online should not be interpreted as desecration of objects of religious veneration, since publication of pictures or photo collages by no means implies any active actions with the corresponding objects. It should also be noted that the legislation never defines the concept of “desecration.”