Misuse of Anti-Extremism in May 2020
On May 23, Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans people convicted under certain anti-extremist and related articles of the Criminal Code (Article 205.2 Part 1, Article 207.2 Parts 1 and 2, Article 212.1, Article 239 Part 1, Article 243.4 Part 2, Article 244 Part 1, Article 280 Part 2, Article 280.1 Part 2, Article 282 Part 1, and Article 354.1 Part 2) from running for elected office for five years after expungement or clearing of their criminal record. Previously, offenders convicted for “crimes of extremism” could not run until their criminal record has been cleared (with the exception of those convicted for grave and especially grave crimes, who, after clearing of their criminal record, continue to be restricted from running for 10 and 15 years respectively). We see no valid reasons for additional restrictions on the right to stand for election, including for those convicted of any of the Criminal Code articles listed above. In addition, we believe that prosecutions under many of these articles are frequently inappropriate.
On May 29, the President approved a new version of the Strategy for Countering Extremism until 2025. Among other considerations, the Strategy clarified certain concepts (including “radicalism”) and defined the concept of “ideology of violence.” The document classifies “destructive activities” of NGOs (including “the use of techniques and scenarios of the so-called ‘color revolutions’”) as extremism, and calls for paying attention to the “informational-psychological influence” of foreign intelligence services aimed at destroying the traditional values. 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 updated Strategy is available here.
In early May, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs discontinued their work on developing amendments to the law on police. The bill’s authors proposed adding a clause to the Law “On Police” that would provide police officers with legal protection from online dissemination of information regarding them that expresses a clear disrespect toward the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In fact, this project was an attempt to develop the “individualized mechanism” based on the “Klishas Law” against online dissemination of information that expresses disrespect toward the state and the society. We oppose further expansion of the scope of this law, which we view as an excessive norm that unreasonably restricts the right to freedom of expression. Therefore, we welcome the decision to stop the development of the bill intended to combat disrespect toward the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In late May, the Ministry of Justice of Russia re-submitted for public discussion an updated draft of the new Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) (the previous version was published in January). The relevant proposals for changing anti-extremist or related articles of the Code of Administrative Offenses include the following. It is proposed to reduce the maximum community service term under the article on incitement to hatred. Another proposal is to combine two parts of the article on banned symbols (display or sale of paraphernalia and symbols) thus mitigating the punishment for the sale of paraphernalia and symbols. The new draft also excludes from the Code of Administrative Offenses the penalties for “insulting the authorities” more than twice. The proposed version of the Code of Administrative Offenses classifies violations of the norms of the anti-extremist legislation as gross administrative offenses, so the cases in this category cannot be discontinued due to the trifling nature of the offense. The draft codifies the de-facto existing understanding of the term “continuing offense,” which is often a factor in prosecutions against online publications. The Ministry of Justice insists that, as a rule, the limitation period for administrative responsibility should be one year with an even longer period for a number of articles. In particular, a two-year period has been proposed for gross administrative offenses. However, for a number of violations against legislation on media (except for the article on the abuse of freedom of the media) or laws governing information processing, and as well as for offenses that infringe on the governing order and public morality the limitation period of two months (or three months for cases tried in court) has been proposed.
At the end of May, Deputy Alexei Zhuravlyov (non-factional, leader of the Rodina party) introduced a bill to the State Duma proposing to supplement the criminal code with Article 354.2 (falsification of historical facts about the causes and results of the Second World War). Under Part 1 of the proposed article (assigning responsibility for starting the Second World War to the USSR or denial of the USSR’s key role in the victory over Axis countries in the Second World War, as well as dissemination of information about the sameness of Nazism and the official political ideology of the USSR, committed publicly) Zhuravlyov proposed to punish citizens with a heavy fine, community service, or imprisonment for up to five years. Such sanctions fully duplicate the sanctions provided by Article 354.1 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism). In its response to the bill, the Supreme Court indicated that the norm proposed by Zhuravlyov would partially compete with Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code, therefore, the expansion of the latter, rather than the introduction of a new Article 354.2, should be considered. The Russian government gave a negative review, noting that such acts can already be qualified under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code, and that Zhuravlyov failed to include any data on apparent insufficiency or inefficiency of the existing criminal legal norms. We oppose further expansion of the restrictions on historical debate, which started with introducing Article 354.1. In our opinion, such restrictions constitute a gross and unreasonable interference with the right to freedom of expression.
Abuses When Countering the Spread of Nazi Ideology
In mid-May, the Investigative Committee of Russia announced that it had opened criminal cases under Article 354.1 Part 1 (rehabilitation of Nazism) for uploading photos of the Third Reich personalities (in particular, Adolf Hitler and Andrei Vlasov but under different names) to the websites of the Immortal Regiment movement on May 9 and on other dates. According to the Investigative Committee, experts used IP addresses to identify few dozen users involved in posting photographs of Nazi leaders. Most of them turned out to be foreigners, but more than ten people were residents of different regions of Russia. The suspects in the case were interrogated. Charges under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code were brought against Andrei Shabanov from Samara, Daniil Shestakov from Perm, and Vyacheslav Kruglov from Ulyanovsk; criminal cases were opened against Muhammad El Ayyubi from Kazan and a resident of the Tula Region, whose name is not yet known. We believe that the actions of network users are qualified incorrectly. The act of uploading photos of Nazi leaders to a website, even if performed on the Victory Day of May 9, does not, in and of itself, constitute either a public endorsement of the Nazi crimes or dissemination of any information about the day of Russia’s military glory. Apparently, these photographs were not accompanied by any statements approving or denying Nazi crimes.
We became aware in May of a number of cases filed under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for displaying prohibited symbols. We would like to reiterate that, in our opinion, display of Nazi symbols should be punished only if it is intended as propaganda of Nazism. The note, added to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in March, indicated that punishment for displaying forbidden symbols was not applicable, if the action formed a negative attitude towards the corresponding ideology; unfortunately, the note often fails to prevent inappropriate sanctions.
In late April, a Novosibirsk resident was fined a thousand rubles for publishing in the VKontakte group Protiv ZhKKH Novosibirsk [Against the Novosibirsk Housing and Public Utilities Department] an image of a soldier with a flag decorated with the acronym ZhKKh, with one of the letters replaced with a swastika.
In May, the Kemerovo Regional Court approved the decision of a Novokuznetsk court that imposed a fine of one thousand rubles upon Yevgeny Zabelin, a member of the Essence of Time (Sut’ Vremeni) movement, who posted a photograph with Nazi symbols on his VKontakte page in the fall of 2014. The image in question was an illustration to a LiveJournal post dedicated to the connection between philosopher Alexander Dugin and Golden Dawn – a far-right party in Greece. A Golden Dawn propaganda material, mentioned in the post, contained a photo of Rudolf Hess with a swastika-decorated armband. We believe that Zabelin was fined inappropriately, since his post was condemning Nazism.
Pavel Guryanov, a former Essence of Time activist from Perm, has been more fortunate. A report was compiled against him under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses based on his 2016 LiveJournal post of about the visit by a Foreign Policy journalist to the Azov Regiment training camp in Ukraine; the material was illustrated with photographs featuring Azov insignia, such as the Wolfsangel symbol formerly used by the Nazis. Guryanov said that he did not pursue the goal of advocating Nazism – on the contrary, his publication was anti-fascist in its intent. The district court ruled to dismiss his case.
In Kemerovo, 18-year-old college student Vladislav Koretsky was arrested under Article. 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The court ruling indicated that he periodically published posts with a swastika between February 14, 2016 and January 30, 2017. The screenshots of these posts and other photographs from Koretsky’s page clearly indicated that he supported communist ideology, and his publications were directed against Nazism (as well as American imperialism).
Mikhail Melnikov from Omsk was fined one thousand rubles in late May under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. He published on VKontakte in 2019 a satirical photoshopped image based on a Time magazine cover, on which a swastika was superimposed on the image of Vladimir Putin.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
Activist Sergei Komandirov was fined two thousand rubles in May in Smolensk under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials); he claims that he is not currently engaged in oppositional activities. Law enforcement agencies found on his VKontakte page a 2011 post with the video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny and recognized as extremist in 2013. Many activists of the opposition have been punished for sharing this video, despite the fact that it 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 this video as unfounded and sanctions for its distribution as inappropriate.
In May, 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 indecent form. We believe that Parts 3-5 of Article 20.1 are aimed at suppressing criticism of the authorities; prior to the introduction of these amendments the authorities had been adequately protected by other legal norms. A volunteer at Navalny’s headquarters in Kazan was fined 30,000 rubles due to his Facebook post of a 1992 newspaper clipping about Vladimir Putin’s activities, accompanied by a commentary containing the term “bastard.” Anton Novikov, a resident of Smolensk, was fined the same amount for a comment “Putin - *****” [а profanity] made under a VKontakte post that contained an image of the president and a caption “Putin is a Man’s Man; Glory to Russia.” Two administrative reports were compiled against Kemerovo blogger Mikhail Alferov in connection with videos he had posted on YouTube, in which the word “thief” was used to characterize the president.
On May 22, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Bashkortostan upheld the prosecutorial claim and recognized Bashkort, a nationalist Bashkir organization, as extremist. Its leaders include Fail Alchinov (formerly a leader of another local nationalist organization Kuk Bure) and Ilnar Galin. Among several complaints against the organization, which led to its ban, was the finding by the law enforcement that its official VKontakte page featured “statements that showed signs of calling for violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and for the creation of a single Islamic state,” as well as calls to carry out extremist activities. It is worth noting that no calls for any violent measures to facilitate Bashkortostan’s secession were made. The charges of extremist activity on the grounds that the organization’s representatives promoted rural gatherings, the so-called yinyins, as an alternative to local authorities also do not look convincing, since convocation of meetings is a peaceful political activity.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
It became known in May 2020 that a criminal case under Article 205.5 Part 2 (participation in a terrorist organization) and Article 205.1 Part 1.1 (involving others in terrorist activities, including the activities of a terrorist organization, as well as financing of terrorism) was opened in the Chelyabinsk region against prisoner Asgat Khafizov from Tatarstan. As part of an eight-people group, Khafizov was sentenced to 19 years and two months in a maximum security penal colony under Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization) in 2017 for his involvement in the activities of the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir was recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization, despite the absence of information about its involvement in any terrorist activities. Therefore, we view charges under anti-terrorism articles levied against its followers merely on the grounds of their involvement in the party propaganda as inappropriate.
R. Bagautdinov, who had posted the “The Miracles of the Koran” video (banned in 2011) on his VKontakte page, was fined one thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (dissemination of extremist materials) in early May in the town of Uchaly (Bashkortostan). We couldn’t find calls for violence, incitement to hatred, or discriminatory statements in this educational history video; in our opinion, it speaks about other religions in an emphatically respectful tone. It was banned inappropriately, and, accordingly, administrative punishment for its distribution is inappropriate as well.
The “Charity Guesthouse Ak Umut – Bright Hope” Autonomous Non-Profit Organization was added to the Federal List of Extremist Organizations on May 19 as Entry No. 76. The organization was banned by two decisions of the Kirovsky District Court of Kazan back in 2014; the ban was upheld by the Judicial Collegium for Administrative Cases of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tatarstan in 2015. As follows from the text of the Supreme Court decision the organization’s activities were banned as extremist because prosecutorial inspection had found on its premises Islamic literature included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The claim, seeking to ban the materials, was filed based on the results of the most recent inspection conducted in 2014 – at the end of 12 months after the organization had received a warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity. In our opinion, three religious books discovered in the Guesthouse’s library were banned without a sufficient reason. Therefore, we believe that the organization was recognized as extremist inappropriately.
We found out in May that the Supreme Court of Khakassia has been considering a claim by the Khakassia Prosecutor’s Office to liquidate and recognize as extremist unregistered Khakassian Regional Public Organization for Spiritual and Physical Self-Improvement of a Person under the Great Falun Law “Falun Dafa.” The claim reached the court in March, but its consideration was restarted in April, after the interested parties were brought into the process. The Prosecutor’s Office seeks to ban the organization on the grounds that its members distributed Zhuan Falun – a treatise by Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) founder Li Hongzhi banned in 2011 – and did not stop this activity after a warning was issued to the organization’s leader in 2016. Falun Dafa new religious movement is built around the practice of qigong gymnastics in combination with elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It has been banned and persecuted in China, and its followers abroad sharply criticize the Chinese authorities. Zhuan Falun was recognized as extremist on the grounds that it allegedly advocated the superiority of the adherents of Falun Gong ideology over other people. In our opinion, propaganda of the truth of one’s own convictions cannot be regarded as incitement to hatred, and the book does not contain any calls for violence, therefore the ban against it is inappropriate. Since, according to the prosecutor's office, the extremist activities of the Falun Dafa organization in Khakassia amounted only to the distribution of this book, we consider the request to ban this organization unfounded.
In May, we learned about the following law enforcement actions against Jehovah's Witnesses in various Russian regions.
• In the Krasnodar Krai, a criminal case was opened under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code, and searches were conducted in the homes of believers from two villages, Pavlovskaya and Kholmskaya. 62-year-old Alexander Ivshin and a 43-year-old female resident of Pavlovskaya were placed under travel restrictions and formally named as suspects under Parts 1 and 1.1 of Article 282.2 for organizing the activities of a banned community and for involvement of others in it;
• In Lesozavodsk of Primorsky Krai, Yevgeny Grinenko was placed in pre-trial detention after a series of search raids; he became a suspect under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. The searches and interrogations in Lesozavodsk have continued;
• In the town of Maysky (Kabardino-Balkaria), searches were conducted in homes of six believers, who were interrogated as well;
• In Krasnoyarsk, a criminal case was opened against Vitaly Sukhov under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code;
• Searches in four houses of Jehovah's Witnesses were carried out in Kerch; a criminal case against Artyom Shabliy was opened under Article 282.2 Part 1.1 of the Criminal Code;
• In Komsomolsk-on-Amur, four people were searched, questioned and then released with no further preventive measures;
• In the town of Vyazemsky in the Khabarovsk Krai, at least seven searches were conducted in believers’ homes. 68-year-old Yen Sen Li is suspected of organizing the activities of the banned organization and involving others in its activities; he was released under travel restrictions. 19-year-old Yegor Baranov has been put under arrest for two months.
Two Jehovah's Witnesses from Saratov – Felix Makhammadiev, a native of Uzbekistan, and Konstantin Bazhenov, who had lived in Ukraine for many years and returned to Russia in 2009 – had their Russian citizenship revoked. The citizenship was revoked because both of them had been convicted under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code. In accordance with Article 22 Part 2 of Federal Law “On Citizenship of the Russian Federation,” the verdict became the basis for overturning the decision to grant them Russian citizenship.
On May 21, the St. Petersburg City Court granted the appeal of the prosecutor's office, overturned the prior decision of the Pushkinsky District Court and recognized the books and pamphlets by American preacher William Branham (1909–1965) as extremist. Earlier, in December 2018, the Pushkin District Court refused to ban these materials. We would like to remind that Evening Light, a charitable non-governmental organization that distributed these publications, became involved in the process as an interested party. According to the experts brought in by the prosecutor's office, the author of the books uses neuro-linguistic programming techniques, puts his teaching above the teachings of other churches, and creates an “image of an enemy” with respect to the “Catholic (including also the Orthodox) and Protestant churches.” The writings in question insult the feelings “of the relevant groups of clergy and believers” by describing their opponents as sectarians and advocating the “ideas of a person’s inferiority based on his/her religious affiliation.” The Pushkinsky District Court ordered a new expert examination, reviewed its results and the materials of the case, and, after hearing the opinion of the process participants, decided to deny the prosecutorial request. The prosecutor’s office did not agree with the decision of the Pushkinsky District Court and appealed to the city court, which ordered a new expert examination in the case and, based on its results, recognized Branham’s works as extremist. In our opinion, there are no grounds for banning Branham’s texts, since statements about the truth of one creed and the fallacy of all others are typical of any religious teaching and should not be prosecuted.
Sanctions for Anti-Religious Statements
In May, a court fined Shuya resident Sergei Neustroev three thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials). He posted on VKontakte a video set to the song “Kill the Cosmonauts” by the band Ensemble of Christ the Savior and the Crude Mother Earth, the text of which was banned in 2017. Neustroev said in court that he posted the video prior to the ban against the song and deleted it after being summoned by the FSB. We believe that the song “Kill the Cosmonauts” was recognized as extremist inappropriately – it is obviously satirical and intended to ridicule obscurantism and primitive religiosity.