Misuse of Anti-Extremism in June 2020
In early June, Vladimir Putin signed a law that obligates hosting providers to carry out extrajudicial blocking of websites. The amendments, which will enter into force on October 1, introduce changes in the extrajudicial blocking mechanism described in Article 15.3 of the Federal Law “On Information”. Currently, upon receiving a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office, Roskomnadzor orders telecom operators to block the indicated website; a hosting provider receives a notification that the website has been blocked, and must notify the site owner of the need to delete the problematic information within 24 hours. In accordance with the new amendments, a hosting provider will have to notify the owner immediately after receiving the notification from Roskomnadzor. If the site owner fails to delete the information within 24 hours, the provider will have to block the information resource indicated in the notification (the blocking obligations of telecom operators remain unchanged). Currently, a site owner can delete the information indicated in the notification and inform Roskomnadzor, and then telecom operators have to unlock his resource. The amendments, despite imposing on hosting providers the obligation to block sites, fail to provide for any obligations to remove such restrictions. We oppose extrajudicial blocking of online materials, since it leads to arbitrary treatment and abuse by law enforcement agencies. The new law’s failure to stipulate the unblocking procedure for hosting providers introduces uncertainty that potentially leads to additional unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech.
In mid-June, the Russian government introduced a bill to the State Duma proposing to amend the Federal Law “On Combating Extremist Activity”, so that courts making decisions on banning or suspending an organization as extremist, are obligated to submit their decisions to the Ministry of Justice within three days. The explanatory note says that, currently, it takes up to two years for an organization to be added to the appropriate lists. According to observations by the SOVA Center, this period can be even longer – in fact, the Ministry of Justice was known to take as much as five years after the relevant decision had been adopted by the court to include organizations on the liquidated organizations list.
The Practice of the European Court Of Human Rights
On June 23, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights published its decisions on several complaints with regard to blocking online materials in Russia. The first case, OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, examined complaints from the publishers of Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru and the Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal (ej.ru) websites. All three sites were blocked extrajudicially upon request of the Prosecutor General (i.e., under “Lugovoy’s Law“) in 2014 on the charges of publishing calls for extremist activity and calls for participation in public actions held without permit. In addition, the ECHR published a decision on the complaint by Yevgeniy Bulgakov, the owner of the “Worldview of the Russian Civilization” (www.razumei.ru) website, which was completely blocked on the basis of a 2012 court decision, because the prosecutor’s office had found a banned book on one of its pages; the access to the website was not restored after the book’s removal. The ECHR also issued a decision on the complaint by Gregory Engels, a member of the German Pirate Party and the owner of the domain rublacklist.net, who appealed the decision to block a page of the RosKomSvoboda website that provided information on the tools and software for bypassing restrictions. Finally, the court published its review of the complaint by Vladimir Kharitonov, who disputed the restrictions against his website (digital-books.ru). The site was unavailable from December 2012 to March 22, 2013 due to the fact that it had the same IP address as another website, “The Rastaman Tales,” which allegedly contained illegal content. Each of these four cases has its own peculiarities examined by the European Court of Justice (we write about them in more detail here). However, the shortcomings of the blocking mechanisms stipulated in the Russian law on information and of the decisions made by the Russian courts have led the ECHR to recognize, with respect to all the applicants, a violation of their rights to freedom of expression and to an effective remedy guaranteed by Articles 10 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It is worth noting that, in late June, the ECHR communicated a complaint over the Russian authorities’ decision to block the Telegram messenger; this move could be one of the factors that prompted the Russian authorities to urgently unblock the messenger a few days before that, without even reviewing the relevant court decisions. The authorities didn’t even see the need to pass a special bill on amendments to the law on information introduced to the State Duma by deputies Fedot Tumusov, Dmitry Ionin and Alexander Terentyev in mid-June.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
It became known in June that the 2nd Western District Military Court in Kursk found Sergey Lavrov guilty under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for terrorism on the Internet) in late May and sentenced him to five years in a minimum-security penal colony with loss of the right to administer websites for two and a half years. In addition, Lavrov was ordered to undergo involuntary mental health treatment. The investigation argued, and the court agreed, that Lavrov had called for “carrying out terrorist activities by forcibly seizing power” on his VKontakte page. He was charged for eight posts, one of which dealt with a military coup, and the other seven criticized the “anti-national” and “occupation” government, “unfair elections,” and the president of Russia. One of them called for a “military tribunal over the anti-national Putin regime.” Several of these texts expressed Lavrov’s confidence that a “people's revolution” was inevitable in Russia. In our opinion, only the first post we mentioned could be viewed as a direct call for violent activity. The rest of his publications contain no signs of justifying terrorism or calls for it. Although law enforcement agencies had a formal reason to prosecute Lavrov, we consider the punishment imposed on him disproportionately severe. Moreover, we do not consider criminal prosecution against Lavrov necessary; more lenient measures could have been sufficient, given the insignificant audience of his page and publications.
At the same time, the 2nd Western District Military Court sentenced Aitakhaji Khalimov, a 27-year-old resident of Kaliningrad, under the same Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code to three and a half years of imprisonment in a minimum-security penal colony. The prosecution was based on the fact that Khalimov had reposted three clips about the First Chechen War on his VKontakte page. We doubt the appropriateness of the verdict against Khalimov. From our point of view, the videos do, in fact, positively evaluate and romanticize the actions of the militants, specifically their military actions – the videos say nothing about terrorist attacks. At the same time, these materials contain no calls for continuation of the armed separatist activities in Chechnya. In addition, it should be borne in mind that the First Chechen War ended with the signing of peace agreements, and the separatists were not held legally accountable for their actions; therefore, it is not clear why the justification of those, already historical, events as a separatist rebellion should be equated with justification or propaganda of terrorism and fall under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code. If law enforcement agencies view glorification of the First Chechen War as dangerous, they should have chosen appropriate arguments and qualified Khalimov’s actions accordingly. In addition, we regard the real prison term of three and a half years in a minimum-security penal colony as an excessively severe punishment for speech.
In mid-June, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow issued a verdict in the case of Vyacheslav Gorbaty, an activist of the Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (IGPR “ZOV”). The retiree from Chernogolovka, the Moscow Region, was found guilty under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code of participating in the activities of the extremist organization Army of People’s Will (Armia Voli Naroda, AVN) and received a two-year suspended sentence with three years of probation and additional restriction of freedom for six-months. The investigation claimed that Gorbaty had served as the leader of a cell of the banned organization in the Moscow Region and had collected 143 thousand rubles for its activities, but the charge under Article 282.3 of the Criminal Code (financing of extremist activities) was dropped in February due to expiry of the limitation period. The case under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code went to court in October and was initially returned to the prosecutor, but, in May 2019, Gorbaty was charged anew. Army of People’s Will – an organization of the Stalinist-nationalist kind repeatedly implicated in xenophobic propaganda – was recognized as extremist in 2010. We view this decision as inappropriate since it was based solely on the ban of the leaflet You have elected – You are to judge! (Ty izbral – tebe sudit), which we consider unfounded. Accordingly, we also view sentences under Article 282.2 against the activists of IGPR “ZOV” (as the AVN’s successor) as inappropriate.
Activists of the unregistered Other Russia party Artyom Golubev, Mikhail Prosvirnin and Alexander Kryshka were detained and then put under arrest for two months in early June. Golubev was charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization), and Kryshka and Prosvirnin – under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of such an organization). According to the investigators, the defendants continued the activities of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) recognized as an extremist organization in 2007. We would like to remind that we consider inappropriate both the ban against the NBP and prosecutions against activists for participating in it. According to the investigation, the incriminating activities included, in particular, an attack on April 25, 2020 against a monument to Czechoslovak Legion soldiers in Chelyabinsk, on which the defendants inflicted several blows with a sledgehammer, while unfurling the banner “You Shall Pay for Konev!” A case under Article 214 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (vandalism) has been opened based on the fact of the attack against the monument, but there is no information on the corresponding charges against the National Bolsheviks. Golubev, Prosvirnin and Kryshka were detained near the Leninsky District Prosecutor's Office Building in Chelyabinsk during an “attempt to set the building on fire” in protest against the beating and rape of a detainee in the Leninsky District Police Department of Chelyabinsk on May 6. The investigators regard Molotov cocktails and “NBP armbands” found at the scene of the incident as the evidence of the defendants’ intention to set fire to the building. The case includes testimonies of an officer of the “E” Center (for countering extremism), who was embedded within the group, and of two other unnamed witnesses.
In June, courts in the Belgorod Region fined eight people under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (dissemination of extremist materials) for distributing the video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny.” In addition, a report for the same offence was filed against a resident of Nadym (Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug). This video was recognized as extremist in 2013, despite the fact that merely lists a number of unrealized campaign promises made by United Russia in its 2002 manifesto and calls to vote for any other party. We view the ban against this video as unfounded and sanctions for its distribution as inappropriate.
We know of two cases of prosecution under Article 20.1 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (petty hooliganism) for disseminating information that expresses 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. The Kirovsky District Court in the city of Kemerovo fined local blogger Mikhail Alferov 30 thousand rubles for publishing a video that showed a pile of snow with the words “Putin is a thief” written on it. In Syktyvkar, a report was filed against LGBT activist Nina Popugaeva for posting in the “Queerrrriot” VKontakte public page the “Last Amendments” performance video, in which a person in a Vladimir Putin mask puts a coat of white paint over the text of a book that displays the word “Constitution” on its cover.
Abuses When Countering Incitement to Hatred or the Spread of Nazi Ideology
We found out in June that the Krasnoselsky District Court of St. Petersburg issued two decisions in May against local resident Artyom Martirosyan. He faced two fines in the amount of thousand rubles each under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials) for publishing on the “Atheist” public page on VKontakte the banned song “Synagogue” by the band Ensemble of Christ the Savior and the Crude Mother Earth. The narrator in this song claims that Jews are to blame for all the problems and need to be eliminated, but this idea is presented in a satirical manner, typical for this musical collective, so we doubt the expediency of banning the song. Based on the context, we believe that Martirosyan did not take the lyrics seriously and did not publish it as anti-Semitic propaganda, and therefore was prosecuted inappropriately.
The Rasskazovsky District Court in the Tambov Region and the Kominternovsky District Court in Voronezh fined two people in June for distributing the “Boots” (botinki) song by the punk band F.P.G. on VKontakte. We doubt the legal propriety in both of these administrative prosecution cases. “Boots” was added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials in 2016 along with two songs by the far-right music band Kolovrat. In a certain context – for example, when published next to Kolovrat songs – its text can, indeed, be interpreted as justifying xenophobic violence. However, both social network users in question did not approve of the violence and did not spread xenophobic propaganda.
In June, we learned that a permanent court presence of the Kudymkar City Court in the village of Yusva of Perm Krai fined Tatyana Shirinkin, the director of the Yusva Centralized Library System, in May under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. In the course of an audit, the Yusva District prosecutor found on a “bookcrossing” shelf of one of the System’s libraries (that is, on a shelf for free exchange of books among readers) a certain book recognized as extremist in 2009. We doubt the appropriateness of administrative sanctions against the director of the Centralized Library System. The subjective side of an offense under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses is characterized by the presence of direct intent. We believe that the director had no intent to store prohibited materials specifically or to facilitate their storage. In addition, bookcrossing books are not considered part of a library collection, and the existing legislative norms make it impossible to draw an unambiguous conclusion about the obligation of librarians to control the contents of non-collection books that visitors exchange. Even in an extreme case, prosecutors should have gone no further than issuing a motion to the director, or they could have identified a person, who put the book in question on the shelf, and hold them accountable – and then the court could issue a motion to the Centralized Library System director to eliminate the causes and conditions that contributed to the commission of an administrative offense (Article 29.13 of the Code of Administrative Offenses).
It was reported in June that, back in April, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Penza fined local resident Mikhail Kolomeytsev a thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of Nazi symbols), and the Penza Regional Court upheld this decision in May. Kolomeytsev was punished for posting on VKontakte, in 2016, a visual material that included a swastika. The image compared the number of deaths under the flag of Nazi Germany to the number of deaths under the state emblem of the Soviet Union and included captions stating that 35 million Soviet citizens died under the Nazi flag, while over 60 million died under the Soviet state emblem, and “and they all didn’t die from old age.” The court found that it was impossible to apply the note to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, introduced in March, in order to drop the charges in Kolomeytsev’s case, since the image he had published did not form a negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism, but, instead, justified it, “given that fewer Soviet citizens died under this symbol than under the state emblem of the Soviet Union.” The regional court upheld this conclusion. From our point of view, Kolomeytsev was prosecuted inappropriately, since the image in question used Nazi symbols not to advocate Nazi ideology but to criticize the Soviet system. At the same time, the publication condemns Nazism as associated with the millions of victims among the Soviet people.
In June, the Penza Regional Court overturned the April ruling of the Zheleznodorozhny District Court to fine local activist Albert Gerasimov two thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of Nazi symbols). This is the second time Gerasimov was fined for failure to remove his 2018 VKontakte post; the first fine was issued in February. In this post, Gerasimov compared the fact that Alexei Navalny had not been admitted to the presidential elections with the admission of the American Black runner Jesse Owens to participate the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The post was accompanied by a photograph of Hitler with a swastika on his sleeve. Meanwhile, Gerasimov was also arrested for the same publication for 10 days in May, and the regional court upheld this decision. Gerasimov is a member of the United Communist Party and adheres to anti-fascist views.
The Leninsky District Court of Voronezh put local opposition activist Grigory Severin under arrest for 12 days in June under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for five images with Nazi symbols published on VKontakte between January 2014 and May 2020. These include a photo of the 1939 badge, depicting a swastika, which symbolized the friendship of Germany and the USSR, and a cartoon depicting President Vladimir Putin as a Nazi. Severin stated in court that he considered himself an anti-fascist and did not want Russia to look like Nazi Germany. From our point of view, Severin was punished inappropriately, since only propaganda of Nazism merits to be prosecuted for the use of Nazi symbols under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. Severin did not advocate Nazism, and his posts with a swastika were intended either as criticism of Russia’s political leadership or as a discussion of the cooperation between the USSR and Nazi Germany before the start of the Great Patriotic War.
In Kaliningrad, the Investigative Committee stopped proceedings in the case of blogger Nikolai Gorelov (writing under pen name Kirichenko) under Article 354.1 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (disseminating information about the days of Russia’s military glory and memorable dates that expresses clear disrespect toward the society). The criminal prosecution was based on the fact that, on May 9, 2018, Gorelov published on his VKontakte page the text of his own composition, in which fictional representatives of different countries and social strata, as well as real historical characters, “thank” the Red Army in honor of the Victory Day. Some characters talk about their suffering inflicted either directly by or with the assistance of the Red Army; others tell how, thanks to the Red Army, they succeeded in committing atrocities. The text is obviously political and partly satirical; it suggests that readers take a critical look at the military operations of the Soviet Union. We regard Article 354.1 Part 3 of the Criminal Code, which was used to bring the blogger to justice, as a vaguely worded norm that excessively restricts the right to freedom of expression and leads to inappropriate criminal prosecutions.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
The 2nd Western District Military Court sentenced Khokim Abdukhalimov, a follower of the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, to a term of 10 years with the first three years to be served in prison, and the remaining seven – in a maximum-security penal colony. He was found guilty of participating in the activities of an organization recognized as terrorist in Russia (Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code); in particular, he took part in Hizb ut-Tahrir events, conducted classes to study its ideology, participated in conversations and correspondence via mobile applications, and also distributed the “ideological source materials” of the party in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region in the period from January 2018 to March 2019. We consider prosecution against Hizb ut-Tahrir members under “terrorist articles” merely on the basis of their party activity (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) inappropriate, since this party was never implicated in terrorist activities.
In June, local resident Ruslan Bekirov was detained in the village of Orlinoye in Balaklavsky District of Sevastopol. He is suspected of giving false evidence (Article 307 Part 1 of the Criminal Code). After interrogation, he was released on his own recognizance with travel restrictions. Bekirov served as a witness in the case of Enver Seitosmanov, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for organizing the activities of a terrorist organization (Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) due to his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Bekirov testified against Seitosmanov in March 2019, but later stated in court that his testimony had been obtained under pressure.
In June, searches were carried out in the homes of Tablighi Jamaat supporters in Moscow and the Moscow region; this Islamic movement was recognized in Russia as an extremist organization. A criminal case was opened under Article 282.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code on organizing activities of an organization banned as extremist and participation in such. Nurbek Asiev was arrested as a defendant under Article 282.2 Part 2. Tablighi Jamaat was banned in Russia in 2009 without proper justification, in our opinion. This association is engaged in propaganda of fundamentalist Islam, but was never known to call for violence, and therefore, the persecution of its supporters, from our point of view, is inappropriate.
A week later, there were reports about certain Tablighi Jamaat followers detained in the Volga Region and cases under Article 282.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code being opened against them. Investigative actions took place in the Nizhny Novgorod Region, the Penza Region, the Saratov Region and the Ulyanovsk Region.
In June, Russian authorities continued to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses. It is worth reminding that charges of involvement in the activities of an extremist organization, brought against them, are based on the fact that, in April 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia ruled to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia and 395 local Jehovah's Witnesses organizations as extremist. We believe that this decision had no legal basis, and regard it as a manifestation of religious discrimination.
The Pskov City Court found 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovsky guilty under Article 282.2 Part 1 and Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code in June and sentenced him to a prison term of six and a half years.
The Supreme Court of Crimea reviewed the prosecutorial appeal against the verdict to Artyom Gerasimov, a Jehovah's Witnesses follower, who was sentenced to a fine of 400 thousand rubles in March under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, and sentenced him to six years in prison.
In Neftekumsk of Stavropol Krai, a new criminal case was opened under Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code against Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Samsonov, Alexander Akopov, Shamil Sultanov and Alexei Scherbich, previously charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code.
A local investigative committee in town of Maisky of Kabardino-Balkarian Republic reported on the opening of yet another criminal case under Article 282.2 part 1 of the Criminal Code. A series of search raids in Jehovah's Witnesses’ homes took place in the town in May.
Sergey Oganyan was placed under house arrest in Odintsovsky District of the Moscow Region as a defendant under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code; he is suspected of organizing the activities of the local banned community and recruiting others into it.
House searches that affected at least 19 Jehovah's Witnesses families took place in Astrakhan. Evgeny Ivanov, Ruslan Diarov and Sergey Klikunov, charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, were sent to a pre-trial detention center for two months, and Olga Ivanova, charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code, was placed under house arrest.
After a series of search raids in the city of Nazarovo of Krasnoyarsk Krai, Ivan Shuliuk was detained, and a criminal case against him was opened under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code.
Meanwhile, in the second half of June, the Lgovsky District Court of the Kursk Region decided to replace the unserved part of the sentence for Dennis Christensen – a Danish citizen originally sentenced to six years in a minimum-security penal colony under Article 282.2 Part 1 in February 2019 – with a fine of 400 thousand rubles. However, three days later, the Kursk Supervisory Prosecutor for Correctional Institutions appealed the decision of the Lgovsky District Court, while Christensen was placed in a special detention center for 10 days for violating prison rules. Christensen's defense intends to file an objection against the prosecutorial appeal.
In mid-June, the judge of the Magistrates' Court District No. 100 of Moscow fined lawyer Stanislav Kulov, the editor-in-chief of the Religiia i Pravo (Religion and Law) website, in the amount of four thousand rubles under Article 13.15 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (dissemination of information about an organization recognized as extremist without indicating its prohibited status) for publishing an announcement regarding the presentation of the annual SOVA Center report on freedom of conscience. The text of the announcement mentioned “intensified persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses” as one of the key trends in the freedom of conscience violations in Russia. Roskomnadzor, which filed an administrative offense report against Kulov, and then the court concluded that the publication had an obligation to mention the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses organizations had been banned as extremist. According to the Religiia i Pravo editorial board, this notification was not required, since the text merely spoke about citizens, who followed the religious teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the religion per se was not prohibited by the Supreme Court decision.
Sanctions for Anti-Religious Statements
It became known in late June, that the police in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug had filed a report under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (intentional public desecration of religious or liturgical symbols) against Surgut resident Nikolai Sokurov. The administrative prosecution was based on Sokurov’s publications on VKontakte for 2016–18. The report mentioned “about ten images related to religious themes in one way or another” (the images listed are satirical and do not incite hatred) and the video “The Orthodox Economy. These News No. 73” with criticism of Russian economic policy published on Radio Liberty YouTube channel. In our opinion, the fact of posting atheistic pictures and videos online should not be interpreted as desecration of objects of religious veneration, since publishing photo collages does not imply any actions with the actual objects. It should also be noted that the legislation fails to define the concept of “desecration” in any way.