Misuse of Anti-Extremism in April 2020
The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in misuse of Russia's anti-extremist legislation in April 2020.
In early April, the president signed two laws described in detail in our March review. The law introducing additional administrative and criminal penalties for disseminating unreliable or knowingly false information about emergencies was signed on April 1, and the law introducing a new Article 243.4 of the Criminal Code (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) with punishment in the form of multi-million fines or imprisonment was signed on April 7. We view the introduction of these norms as unjustified.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements and Abuses When Countering Incitement to Hatred
It became known in mid-April that the Central District Court of Chelyabinsk arrested Dmitry Tsibukovsky and his wife Anastasia Safonova for two months on the charges of hooliganism motivated by political hatred and hostility, committed by a group of persons, by prior conspiracy and with the use of weapons (Article 213 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). The charge stems from the action undertaken by the anarchists on the night of February 14, 2018, when they placed a banner reading “The FSB Is the Main Terrorist” on the fence of the Chelyabinsk FSB Office and threw a flare across the fence. The action was captured on a video posted in the People’s Self-Defense community on VKontakte. In our opinion, although the protesters were guided by political motives, the qualification of their actions under Article 213 of the Criminal Code is incorrect. The banner was placed on the fence late at night without any witnesses, and, as far as we can tell, the anarchists’ action did not disturb the working or resting environment of citizens, functioning of institutions, etc. – that is, the action did not lead to a gross violation of the public order. The action was unlikely to have been aimed at expressing disrespect for society; on the contrary, its intent was to draw the attention of the society to a socio-political issue viewed by its organizers as important. Thus, there is no reason to regard their action as hooliganism. In addition, it is not clear to us why the investigation classified a flare tossed on the snow as a weapon.
In April, we learned about three persons who faced responsibility under Article 20.1 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (petty hooliganism) for disseminating information expressing disrespect for the state or the society in an indecent form. We would like to remind here that we view Parts 3–5 of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses as aimed at suppressing criticism of the authorities, while, prior to their introduction, the authorities were adequately protected by other legal norms. A court in Astrakhan fined activist Alexei Tiurin 30 thousand rubles for posting on his Facebook page the expletive-ridden statement “Shaman is a king; Putin *****”; the post appeared last September in connection with the criminal prosecution against Yakut shaman Alexander Gabyshev. In Krasnodar Krai, local resident Ilya Yurkov was fined the same amount. He posted on his Instagram page a cartoon by Sergei Yelkin, a prominent Russian cartoonist, which depicts Vladimir Putin taking a respiratory ventilator away from a patient with the words “Sorry, dude, but this is needed for PR” and packing the machine into a box labeled “Help for our friend Donald;” Yurkov also added the hashtags #Putinrvor [Putin is a thief], #Putinboltun, [Putin is a prattler], #EdinayaRossiyasdokhla [United Russia has died], and #Coronavirus. A report against a volunteer at the Navalny’s Kazan headquarters was compiled due to his Facebook post, in which a 1992 newspaper clipping on Vladimir Putin’s activities was accompanied by a commentary that contained the word “bastard.”
Sanctions for Displaying Banned Symbols
In April, we became aware of two cases filed under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public demonstration of Nazi symbols) that we considered inappropriate.
In Yelets (the Lipetsk Region), the court fined local activist Gennady Makarov one thousand rubles. The police discovered that, in 2013, he added to an album on one of his VKontakte accounts a photograph, which depicts laughing Vladimir Zhirinovsky pointing his finger at an actor dressed as Adolf Hitler. By posting this Zhirinovsky photo, the activist, expelled from the LDPR in 2010, apparently meant to criticize this party rather than advocate Nazi ideology. In addition, the audience of this post was extremely small – it scored only three “likes” and two comments, one of them critical of Zhirinovsky and the other one left by Makarov himself.
Activist Albert Gerasimov was fined three thousand rubles in Penza due to his February 2018 post on his VKontakte page. Gerasimov compared barring Alexei Navalny from competing in the presidential elections with admitting African-American runner Jesse Owens to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The post was accompanied by a photograph of Hitler with a swastika on his sleeve. Gerasimov is a member of the United Communist Party, and his views are anti-fascist. According to the activist, this was the second time he faced responsibility for the same post; he intends to appeal the fine. It is worth noting that, two days before the fine was imposed, Gerasimov had left a graffiti on the fence of the Penza governor’s house demanding the removal of the fence, which, according to the activist, was erected on a public road.
We believe that punishment for display of Nazi symbols should be reserved for the cases related to propaganda of Nazism. A note that the punishment does not apply to cases, in which banned symbols are used to form a negative attitude towards Nazism, recently added to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, is not likely to fully prevent inappropriate sanctions, but it does work in some instances.
Thus, in the Alikovsky District of the Chuvash Republic, the police refused to open an administrative case under Article 20.3 against Galina Ivanova, a teacher in the Bolshevylskoe village Secondary School. A participant in an amateur play about the Second World War, Ivanova posted on a social network her photo in a scout costume standing next to another participant, who played a HiPo member and wore a Nazi swastika on his sleeve. A photo was reported to the police by a lawyer and former Deputy, who was in conflict with the school principal (a chairman of the Deputies Assembly). However, the police found no offense in the actions of the teacher, who, nevertheless, has deleted the image from her page. Obviously, this is a positive example of using the note to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
Prosecutions against Religious Organizations and Believers
It was reported in April that Gabdrakhman (Albert) Naumov, a teacher at the Russian Islamic University and a well-known religious activist in Tatarstan, was arrested there in March 2020 under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of an extremist organization). He was accused of organizing a local cell of Nurcular, a religious organization recognized as extremist; Naumov denies any guilt. The ban on Nurcular in 2008 resulted from the unjustified bans against the books of moderate Islamic Turkish theologian Said Nursi, which were found to promote the superiority of Islam over other religions. Russian Muslims studying the Nursi legacy do not constitute a single organization, but this did not prevent law enforcement agencies and courts from recognizing an association, which never existed in reality, as extremist and from prosecuting Muslims who read and discuss Nursi’s books under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code for participation in a banned organization.
In April, we recorded two cases filed under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials) for the dissemination of religious literature without a proper reason, both in Bashkortostan.
The Baymaksky District court fined local resident Zilya Mukhametzyanova a thousand rubles under Article 20.29. On her VKontakte page, she shared a publication that included a number of files with Islamic literature, including a file with The Book of Monotheism by Muhammad ibn Sulayman at-Tamimi (Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) with comments by theologian Abdul-Rahman ibn Nasir al-Sa’di. This treatise as well as its various editions with al-Sa’di commentaries were recognized as extremist by courts in several Russian regions on a number of occasions. In our opinion, although the text of the treatise contains certain elements of hate speech and a number of positive references to jihad, the modern standards cannot be applied to 18th century religious works; al-Sa’di’s comments on The Book of Monotheism contain no aggressive statements. Thus, we view both the ban against the distribution of the treatise and the prosecution against Mukhametzyanova as inappropriate.
The Abzelilovsky District Court of Bashkortostan fined Aigiz Asylguzhin fifteen hundred rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses; he was also warned about the impermissibility of violations against the legislation on countering extremist activities. Miracles of the Quran – a video recognized as extremist in 2011 – was found on his VKontakte page. In our opinion, Miracles of the Quran is a clearly non-aggressive movie and was recognized as extremist inappropriately. Accordingly, the fine imposed on Asylguzhin was inappropriate as well.
In early April, the Lensky District Court of Yakutia found Jehovah's Witness Igor Ivashin guilty of organizing activities of an extremist organization (Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) and issued a six-year suspended sentence with a probation period of three and a half years. As an additional punishment, he is facing a five-year ban on taking leadership positions in civil organizations. Ivashin will be also prohibited from leaving Lensk without permission and from changing his job without notifying the regulatory authorities for one year.
In mid-April, searches were conducted in the homes of Jehovah's Witnesses in Teykovo (the Ivanovo Region) as part of the investigation of a new criminal case under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. At least four believers were named suspects, two of whom – Vladimir Spivak and Sergey Galyamin – have been put under travel restrictions. We would like to remind that, in the Ivanovo Region, another criminal case against at least six Jehovah's Witnesses from Shuya is being investigated, and the case against a resident of Furmanov is already being heard in court.
In early April, the Prosecutor General's Office of the Republic of Belarus refused to extradite Jehovah's Witness Nikolai Makhalichev to Russia. Makhalichev was detained in February 2020 in the Vitebsk Region. In March, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office sent a request to his Belarusian colleagues to extradite the believer as part of an investigation into the criminal case of the Jehovah's Witnesses community in Uray of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug. Belarusian and international human rights organizations came out in defense of Makhalichev. Now that his extradition has been denied, Makhalichev was released from custody and human rights activists hope that the Belarusian authorities will grant him refugee status or asylum.