Misuse of Anti-Extremism in December 2020
The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in misuse of Russia's anti-extremist legislation in December 2020.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that changes the principle of punishment for incitement to separatism and establishes criminal liability for separatist actions per se. Publishing calls for separatism for the first time will now entail administrative liability under the new Article 20.3.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which can also apply to legal entities. In case of a repeated violation within a year, citizens are subject to criminal prosecution under Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code. For actions aimed at violating territorial integrity, liability is established under Article 280.2 of the Criminal Code with the maximum incarceration sentence of 10 years.
We would like to remind here that, in our opinion, calls for changing country borders should only be considered illegal if they are combined with calls for violent action. Taking into account the fact that the litigation in administrative cases is much more superficial than in criminal proceedings, we cannot presume that the number of inappropriate prosecutions will decrease with the introduction of Article 20.3.2; it may even increase instead. As for Article 280.2, it uses the wording “other actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity,” which is quite vague and may turn into an expansive interpretation and lead to prosecution, in particular, for expressing an opinion on the status of certain territories.
By the end of the month, the State Duma adopted, and the Federation Council approved a series of laws that were subsequently signed by the president. They included:
• A law establishing large fines for website owners and hosting providers for failure to remove or block illegal content (including extrajudicial blocking). In the accepted version, fines for legal entities, which are to be calculated depending on the annual revenue, are provided for repeated violations of this kind.`
• A law that allows blocking or slowing down access to Internet resources that the authorities believe to restrict distribution of materials from Russian media unreasonably.
• Law on social networks. According to the adopted version, services with a monthly user base of more than 500 thousand Russian users will be recognized as social networks. They will have to monitor information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in Russia, accept complaints about such content and block it. In disputable cases, the content will be temporarily blocked and submitted to the competent authorities for consideration through Roskomnadzor. The information will be blocked if it specifically meets the criteria for extra-judicial blocking by a decision of one of the state bodies.
In our opinion, the current Russian legislation that relates to restricting the dissemination of information on the Internet has systemic shortcomings, and its application often unreasonably and disproportionately restricts freedom of speech, especially in the cases of extrajudicial blocking. The ECHR has repeatedly pointed out that these norms were not consistent with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and were being applied arbitrarily. However, all the laws listed above appeal specifically to these legal mechanisms and may contribute to further abuse.
A bill on educational activities, prohibiting, in particular, the use of such activities for “reporting false information about the historical, national, religious and cultural traditions of peoples” passed the first reading in the State Duma in December. We believe that such a wording can be used to restrict historical debate and unreasonably restrict freedom of speech in general.
Amendments to the law “On Freedom of Conscience” were adopted in the first reading as well; among other legislative innovations, they extended to religious groups the requirement that they cannot have as members people included on the Rosfinmonitoring List of Extremists and Terrorists and convicted of extremist crimes (this rule currently applies only to organizations of all types).
In addition, new laws on “foreign agents” and their criminal liability were adopted by parliament and signed by the president. The amendments regulating the participation of individual “foreign agents” in elections and establishing administrative responsibility for them, passed the first reading.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
In December, the court placed Natalia Podolyak, a resident of Krasnoyarsk, under arrest for 10 days under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (incitement to hatred). She left a comment on Facebook under the post about citizens being detained for violating the quarantine, in which she made rude statements about the police officers and the state in general and also wrote, “People and their right to freedom of movement should never be so disrespected.” In our opinion, law enforcement officers should not be considered a vulnerable social group protected by anti-extremist legislation. On the contrary, as the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly pointed out, they must be extremely tolerant of criticism, unless it presents a real threat of violence. Obviously, there were no calls for violence against the police in Podolyak's comment, so we regard the sanction against her as inappropriate.
We became aware in December of two cases filed for publishing the video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny, which had been banned as extremist. Back in November, Roman Slesarenko from Vologda was fined a thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials) for its distribution. In late December, the identical fine was imposed on K. Smirnova from Moscow. Opposition-minded users of social networks are often punished for sharing “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” despite the fact that it 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 believe that the video was banned without due justification, and view numerous sanctions for its distribution as inappropriate.
Prosecutions for Rehabilitation of Nazism
In December, two sentences were passed under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism). Muhammed El-Ayyubi, a student from Kazan, received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 150 thousand rubles in early December under Article 30 Part 3, Article 354.1 Part 1 (attempt to rehabilitate Nazism, namely denying the facts established by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal, or approving the crimes established by it) and Article 228 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (illegal possession of narcotic substances). Kemerovo resident Dmitry Borodaenko was convicted in late December under Article 30 Part 3 and Article 354.1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code; he was sentenced to a fine of 120 thousand rubles. Both uploaded a photograph of Hitler in May 2020 to be displayed on the Immortal Regiment Online website among the photos of the Great Patriotic War veterans. Notably, El-Ayyubi quickly realized his mistake and even became the moderator of the project in the hope of rejecting the photo he had submitted.
We believe that the actions of El-Ayyubi and Borodaenko were qualified under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code incorrectly. Uploading a photograph of the Nazi leader to a website, even on the commemorative day of May 9, in and of itself, constitutes neither a public endorsement of Nazi crimes, nor denial of the facts established by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal.
Sanctions for Display of Banned Symbols
We learned in December, that, in Dankov of the Lipetsk Region, Sergei Korablin was fined a thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of banned symbols) in early November. In 2010, he posted on his VKontakte page an episode from the South Park animated series, in which one of the characters comes to school on Halloween in a Hitler costume with a swastika on his shoulder; the horrified teacher tries to rectify the situation by dressing the boy as a ghost, but the outfit ends up looking like a Ku Klux Klan robe. In our opinion, this episode does not advocate Nazism, so people should not be punished for sharing it.
In Surgut, the same sanction was imposed on Timur Rakhmanov, who added two video recordings of Adolf Hitler's speeches to his video posted on VKontakte in 2012. He stated in court that he used the materials in writing term papers and a senior thesis on the prevention of extremism and did not advocate Nazism. The court, however, did not find it possible to release Rakhmanov from liability by applying the footnote to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses on exceptions to its use. In our opinion, Rakhmanov's explanations, combined with the fact that the videos on his page were not accompanied by any statements in favor of Nazism and his page generally contains no such propaganda, indicate that, most likely, there were no grounds for sanctions.
In December, we were informed of four cases when sanctions were imposed for displaying the symbols of the A.U.E. movement, recognized as extremist in August. We would like to remind that the ideology of the criminal underworld and the A.U.E. subculture is focused on illegal activities and is, therefore, by its nature incompatible with safeguarding of constitutional rights. The activity of spreading such an ideology can be prohibited and criminalized, but the ideology is not political per se and not aimed at changing the constitutional order; therefore, in our opinion, it should not fall under anti-extremist legal regulation. We view the application of anti-extremist legal norms, including Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, in the fight against the A.U.E. ideology as inappropriate.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses continued in December. They are being charged with involvement in the activities of banned organizations, usually based on the April 2017 ruling of the Supreme Court of Russia that recognized the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and 395 of their local religious organizations as extremist. In some cases, Jehovah's Witnesses are prosecuted for continuing the activities of their religious organizations, which had been banned even before 2017. We believe that these bans had no legal basis, and we regard them as manifestations of religious discrimination.
In mid-December Yuri Savelyev was sentenced in Novosibirsk to six years of imprisonment under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization) for continuing the activities of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses community. He has already served about half of the appointed term in pre-trial detention.
Ruslan Alyev from Rostov-on-Don received a suspended sentence of two and a half years under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of an extremist organization).
In Sochi, Nikolai Kuzichkin was sentenced under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to one year and one month of imprisonment, and Vyacheslav Popov – to a year and 10 months. Taking into consideration the time spent in pre-trial detention, the court exempted both of them from serving their sentences.
As we only learned in December, a criminal case was opened in late October under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code and Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (financing of extremism) against Andrei Okhrimchuk from Rostov-on-Don.
New criminal case under Article 282.2 Part 1.1 of the Criminal Code (recruitment into an extremist organization) was opened in Kabardino-Balkaria in late November. The suspects were Vadim Zalipaev and Maria Zalipaeva, residents of Maysky and relatives of Yuri Zalipaev, who had been acquitted the day before under Article 280 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity).
In Snezhinsk of the Chelyabinsk Region, Ilya Olenin became a suspect under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
In early December, Vladimir Melnik, Vladimir Piskarev and Artur Putintsev were sent to a pre-trial detention center under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code.
In the village of Kholmskaya of Krasnodar Krai, Oleg Danilov and Alexander Shcherbina became defendants in a new criminal case.
It was reported in mid-December that the criminal case under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code was opened in Chuvashia against seven Jehovah's Witnesses (previously we only knew about the charges against Vladimir Dutkin from Cheboksary).
Sergei Kazakov, a resident of Bikin in Khabarovsk Krai, was placed into a pre-trial detention center under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code; an unnamed woman is also a suspect in his case.
The first ever case against Jehovah's Witnesses in the Tambov Region was opened under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code in late December. Anton Kuzhelkov was taken into custody, and Nikolai Prokhorov remained at large.
On November 30, 2020, the Partizansky City Court of Primorsky Krai returned the case of two believers to the prosecutor; Irina Buglak and another local resident, born in 1997, whose name was not reported. Both has been charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code.
The same decision was made in Vladivostok, in the case of Dmitry Barmakin, also charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. In September, the court returned the case of his wife Yelena to the prosecutor as well.
Meanwhile, during the trial of Vladivostok residents Valentin Osadchuk (charged under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) Nadezhda Anoikina, Lyubov Galaktionova, Elena Zaischuk, Nailya Kogai, Nina Purge and Raisa Usanova (charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code) the court of appeals canceled the decision of the lower courts to return the case to the prosecutor's office, and sent the case to the court of the first instance for consideration on the merits.
It became known in December, that, in late November, the Leningrad Regional Court confirmed the verdict passed in September to Ilyasbek Toktonazarov, а citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic. He was sentenced to two years in prison under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. A follower of the Tablighi Jamaat movement, Toktonazarov was charged for conducting dawah (sermon) and taelim (teaching) on the territory of a builders’ camp in Kingiseppsky District. Tablighi Jamaat was banned in Russia in 2009 – in our opinion, without due justification. This religious movement is engaged in propaganda of fundamentalist Islam, but it has never been noticed in any calls for violence, and, therefore, persecution against its supporters is, in our opinion, unjustified.
As we found out in December, a court fined Radik Safiullin, Deputy Head of the Muslim Religious Association of Kostroma one thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in early November. In September 2020, in the Kostroma mosque, he received from unidentified persons two volumes: Excellent Explanation of ‘The Criterion Between the Allies of The Merciful and the Allies of the Devil’ by Ibn Taymiyyah by Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al ash-Sheikh and Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar): Biography of the Prophet by Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri. Safiullin put his signature and seal of the Muslim Religious Association of Kostroma on the books, and also created a certificate stating that these publications were not on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. After that, according to the court findings, he handed the books over to the prayer room of Penal Colony No. 7.
In fact, however, these publications are included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. We do not view the ban against as appropriate. It was recognized as extremist for promoting the superiority of one religion and nationality over others. However, the text of the book deals with the biography of the Prophet Muhammad and the events of Islam’s formative era; it reflects the worldview characteristic of medieval Muslim religious literature on which the book is based. As for the explanation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s book we had no opportunity to get acquainted with its contents.
Meanwhile, In Bardymsky District of Perm Krai, Chairman of the local Muslim religious organization Malik Muratov was fined 2,000 rubles under the same article. The charges were based on the fact that the Bardym cathedral mosque had publicly accessible copies of the books The Ideal Muslim: The True Islamic Personality of the Muslim as defined in the Quran and Sunnah by al-Hashimi and The Gardens of the Righteous by Al-Nawawi, recognized as extremist. In our opinion, Muratov was prosecuted inappropriately, since he has been charged for the distribution of two books that had been banned inappropriately. The Ideal Muslim is a set of ethical rules and rules of everyday life for devout Muslims, which, in our opinion, contains no signs of extremism, and The Gardens of the Righteous by Al-Nawawi is a classic collection of the 13th century hadiths, which should not be evaluated using the modern ideas about tolerance.