Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2020
On March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law amending Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of Nazi symbols). Disposition and sanctions of Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses have remained unchanged – only a note was added to clarify that the provisions of the article “do not apply to cases, in which Nazi attributes or symbols, or attributes or symbols similar to Nazi attributes or symbols to the point of confusion, or attributes or symbols of extremist organizations are used to form a negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism and extremism, and there are no signs of propaganda or justification of Nazi or extremist ideology.” Similar amendments to the laws “On Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945,” and “On Combating Extremist Activity” were adopted in late 2019. We welcome the abolition of the blanket prohibition against displaying banned symbols, but it is not clear how the fact of forming a “negative attitude” towards Nazi ideology or ideology of banned organizations is to be established in each particular case. We fear that this clause will not cover all the cases, in which banned symbols could possibly be displayed without the purpose of advocating the relevant ideology. In our opinion, explicitly stating in federal laws and Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses that the display of forbidden symbols is punishable only if intended as propaganda of the corresponding ideology would have been more effective.
In mid-March, the president submitted to the State Duma a bill introducing a new Criminal Code Article 243.4 (“Destruction or damage to military graves, as well as monuments, stelae, obelisks, other memorial structures or objects, which immortalize the memory of those who died defending their Fatherland or its interests, or are dedicated to the days of Russia’s military glory”). The Duma gave its final approval to the measure in late March. Punishment, suggested under this article, includes multi-million fines and imprisonment. In our opinion, these amendments to the Criminal Code aimed at the prevention of demolition of Soviet monuments abroad are unnecessary and motivated primarily by foreign policy considerations (although they can be applied to Russian citizens as well). Moreover, the actions described in the proposed norm, can be prosecuted under the already existing articles of the Criminal Code, and the sanctions stipulated in the new article, especially large fines, appear disproportionately harsh. Additional information about this law is available here.
In late March, the Ministry of Internal Affairs submitted for public discussion a new version of the Strategy for Countering Extremism until 2025. Among other suggestions, it contains proposals to clarify certain concepts (including “radicalism”) and provide several new definitions (including the concept of “ideology of violence”); to classify as manifestations of extremism the “destructive activities” of NGOs (including “the use of techniques and scenarios of so-called color revolutions”); and to pay attention to the “informational-psychological influence” of foreign intelligence services aimed at destroying the traditional values. It is also worth noting that, when discussing the migration policy priorities related to countering extremism, the Strategy proposes to focus not on combating “illegal migration,” but on adaptation programs, on counteracting social exclusion, formation of ethnic enclaves, and spatial segregation, and on involving civil society institutions. Finally, for the first time, the Strategy defines quantitative indicators that also include the percentage of violent crimes among “the crimes of extremist nature.” Additional information about the project of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is available here.
On the last day of the month, the State Duma adopted, and the Federation Council approved, amendments, which included expanded and more severe punishments for distributing fake news (which were signed by the president on April 1 and have entered into force). Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses has been supplemented by a new Part 10.1 that punishes dissemination of “deliberately unreliable information under the guise of reliable messages” with regard to emergency situations and measures to counter them. Such actions will incur heavy fines, but only for legal entities. Legal entities will be punished under the new Part 10.2 of the same article for distribution of false information resulting in death, damage to health, violation of public order or security, and so on (previously such actions were covered under Part 11). The new version of Part 11 covers repeated offenses under Parts. 10, 10.1 and 10.2, also increasing the severity of sanctions for legal entities. Individuals can be criminally liable under the new Articles 207.1 and 207.2 of the Criminal Code, the dispositions of which correspond to Parts 10.1 and 10.2 of Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, but the punishment stems from public dissemination of “knowingly false” rather than “knowingly unreliable” information (we don’t quite understand how these two concepts will differ in practice). The maximum punishment under Article 207.2 of the Criminal Code provides for a five-year prison term. These amendments increase the severity of the norms related to fake news in the Code of Administrative Offenses, but do not correct their shortcomings. The need for criminal prosecution for disseminating false information about emergencies is even more dubious, and the proposed sanctions appear disproportionately harsh.
The Practice of the European Court Of Human Rights
On March 24, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights published a decision on the complaint of St. Petersburg journalist Nikolay Andrushchenko (1943–2017), who was sentenced in 2009 for insulting a government official (Article 319 of the Criminal Code) and inciting hatred (Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) to a suspended prison term and a fine, and then released from punishment. Under Article 282, he was charged with inciting hatred against the social group “law enforcement officers” for publishing an article about forcible dispersal of a protest demonstration. The ECHR drew an analogy with the previously reviewed case of Savva Terentyev and refused to recognize the police and FSB officers, negatively characterized by Andrushchenko, as a vulnerable social group. The Strasbourg court also emphasized that Andrushchenko’s article dealt with the socially significant issue of using force at public events, and rejected the arguments that law enforcement officials could become victims of violence as a result of its publication. Thus, the ECHR found a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements and Abuses When Countering Incitement to Hatred
In March, we recorded one case filed under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (incitement to hatred) without reason – a journalist of the 29.ru portal Yaroslav Varenik was fined 10,000 rubles in Arkhangelsk. In October, he published a news article about local resident Arseny Kuroptev, who had been punished under the same article for reposting a text about “a Muslim conspiracy to destroy Russians.” The journalist quoted part of Kuroptev’s post in the text of his article. We considered the Varenik case as inappropriate, because, most likely, his actions were not intended to incite national or religious hatred. Quotes from xenophobic texts included in journalistic publications in order to inform readers should not be equated with the distribution of such quotes for propaganda purposes.
We became aware of two cases filed under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials), which we considered inappropriate. In both cases, people were punished for distributing the banned video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny and recognized as extremist in 2013. A report was compiled against Smolensk resident Sergey Komandirov, who posted this video on VKontakte back in 2011; a resident of Suzdal was fined by a court for a similar act. The notorious video merely lists a number of unrealized campaign promises made by United Russia and calls to vote for any other party. We view the ban against it as unfounded.
Sanctions for Displaying Banned Symbols
In March, we became aware of several cases filed for displaying prohibited symbols that we considered inappropriate.
Back in late January, the Dorogomilovsky District Court of Moscow fined Roman Tkachuk, a designer from Zhukovsky (the Moscow Region), a thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (sale of Nazi paraphernalia for propaganda purposes), for posting an advertisement on Avito about the sale of the Third Reich coins with Nazi symbols. The court never established whether Tkachuk had been selling coins in order to promote Nazi ideology. In our opinion, in general, the trade in German antiques of the 1930s and 1940s, in and of itself, is not intended to promote Nazism; therefore, we consider sanctions for such actions inappropriate. We believe that Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses should be used not against antique dealers, but against modern manufacturers of objects with Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols and distributors of such products.
In February, a report was compiled in Voronezh under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of Nazi symbols) against 16-year-old Semyon. The case was based on materials shared on Semyon’s VKontakte page, including the Tom and Jerry meme (where they personify the Third Reich and the USSR in World War II), an amateur video of Rammstein’s song “Heute Nacht,” and a fragment from Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Hitler pounds the table and shouts “Nein, nein, nein!” In early March, a report was compiled against Irina Shumilova, a 19-year-old activist of the Left Block, for sharing the same Tom and Jerry video.
In mid-March, in the Sarmanovsky District of Tatarstan, 22-year-olds Ainur Gazizullin and Radik Fatikhov were fined a thousand rubles each under the same article. While still teenagers, they had posted a video meme “Adolf Hitler Raps” on VKontakte, which included Nazi symbols.
In all these cases, the social network users made publications that, in our opinion, were not intended to promote Nazism. We believe that punishment should be reserved for the cases, in which Nazi symbols are displayed in order to promote the corresponding ideology. A note that the punishment does not apply to cases, in which banned symbols are used to form a negative attitude towards Nazism or an extremist ideology, was recently added to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, but it is not likely to fully prevent inappropriate sanctions.
At the same time, the courts are beginning to take this new clarification into account. Thus, in Krasnoyarsk, the case of nationalist Gleb Maryasov, who had been charged with posting “I am not a Nazi” video on VKontakte, were returned to the police. This skit by the German comedy show Bohemian Browser Ballett ridicules the ultra-right, who are outraged when they are labeled Nazis. The judge returned the case for additional work, indicating the need for an expert opinion by a historian or a culturologist on the presence of signs of Nazi propaganda in the video.
We also note that, in late March, the Supreme Court of Ingushetia upheld the claim of the Ministry of Justice of the republic and liquidated the Council of the Ingush People’s Teips. One of the court’s many arguments in favor of this decision was that the symbols used by the Council do not correspond to those described in its charter. 11 additional symbols were added to the Council’s emblem. One of them – a tamga (emblem) of the Yovloy family from the village of Tisha Yovli – was regarded by the Ministry of Justice as similar to Nazi symbols to the point of confusion. This tamga is indeed a swastika, but we believe that the use of Nazi symbols should only be prohibited if it pursues the goal of promoting Nazism. Requiring representatives of an Ingush family and Ingush national organizations not to use their traditional symbols is inсcorrect.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
In mid-March, Rustem Seitmemetov and the Seytumerov brothers, Seytumer and Osman, were arrested in Crimea as suspects under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participating in activities of a terrorist organization). Amet Suleymanov was placed under house arrest. TV anchor Seytumer Seytumerov, who left Crimea in 2018 (a namesake of the arrestee), is a suspect in the same case under Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of a terrorist organization).
We believe that prosecutions against Hizb ut-Tahrir members under anti-terrorist articles based solely on their party activities (holding meetings, reading literature etc.) are inappropriate, since the party itself was never known to be involved in terrorism.
Said Nursi Readers
As we found out in March, the case of Denis Zhukov – a follower of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code for participation in the banned organization Nurcular – was discontinued back in late December. The decision to dismiss the case was made on the basis of a note to this Criminal Code article, which exempts from responsibility the persons, who committed a crime for the first time and voluntarily stopped participating in the organization. Zhukov does not agree with this decision, since he has never admitted his guilt. Obviously, in the absence of such a Solomonic decision, the case would have had to be stopped either due to the expiration of the limitation period for prosecution (in the end of December), or for lack of corpus delicti – and these options did not suit the investigation and the prosecutor’s office.
News of the detention of several Tatarstan residents on charges of involvement in the activities of Nurcular came in mid-March. One of them was arrested for two months under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of an extremist organization).
According to our information, followers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi were detained in Naberezhnye Chelny (probably, in a different court case). Nakiya Sharifullina, convicted of involvement in the activities of Nurcular in 2014, was placed under house arrest there.
In addition, we became aware that a follower of Nursi was arrested in Izberbash (the Republic of Dagestan); he had previously been connected to the case of Ilgar Aliev, convicted under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code.
We view prosecutions against followers of Nursi for their alleged membership in Nurcular as inappropriate. This association has never existed in Russia at all – there are only individual believers who study the Nursi legacy.
In March, Russian courts pronounced two sentences on Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Filatov under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to six years in prison, and the Yalta City Court fined local resident Artyom Gerasimov 400,000 rubles under the same article.
In late March, the Penza Regional Court overturned the sentence against six Jehovah's Witnesses and sent the case for a new trial to the Leninsky District Court of Penza. Previously, in December 2019, the Leninsky District Court sentenced Vladimir Alushkin to six years in prison under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code; his wife and four other believers received a two-year suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
In March, Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the course of investigation of new and previously opened cases. In Chelyabinsk, a criminal case under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code was opened against 74-year-old Vladimir Suvorov, and he was put under travel restrictions (the case of his wife, charged under part 2 of the same article, is already in court).
Yuri Krutyakov – Jehovah’s Witness from the Moscow Region, charged under Article 282.2 Parts 1, 1.1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of an extremist organization, recruitment and participation in it) and put on the wanted list – was arrested in Moscow. His wife and four other believers were placed under house arrest. Another resident of the Moscow region, Stepan Adamov, became a suspect under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
Rustam Seidkuliev was detained in Adler and taken to Saratov. He was placed under house arrest Article 282.2 under Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
A case under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code against Jehovah’s Witness Antoly Gorbunov was opened in late March in Krasnoyarsk.
In Karpinsk of the Sverdlovsk region, searches were conducted in connection with the case against Venera Dulova, Daria Dulova and Alexander Pryanikov, which is being investigated under Article 282.2 Part 1.1 of the Criminal Code. In late January, they received suspended sentences under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
A case under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code was opened against Tatyana Kulakova in Sakhalin. Her husband and son have already been under investigation since 2018 and 2019, respectively.
In Khakassia, a new criminal case was opened against six Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose names were not known at the time of this review.