Misuse of Anti-Extremism in January 2021
In January, a draft bill was introduced in the State Duma, under which the media will have to accompany references to organizations recognized as terrorist in Russia with an indication that their activities have been prohibited. Failure to comply with this requirement is subject to fines. At present, such a requirement pertains only to references to organizations recognized as extremist.
In addition, President Vladimir Putin instructed the State Duma to prepare amendments to the Federal Law “On Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945” by July 1. The amendments should prohibit “publicly equating the roles of the USSR and Nazi Germany in World War II.” We do not know what kind of statements will be qualified by legislators as “equating,” but we fear that such changes may lead to an even greater restriction of freedom of speech with regard to historical discussion.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
We learned in January that, back in mid-December, a court in the Lipetsk region fined Oleg Nemaltsev 1,500 rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials) for publishing on VKontakte the video “Putin Khu... (remake),” included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. We believe that the song about Putin in the video is offensive, but neither its text nor the video sequence contain statements that show signs of extremism. Therefore, we view the sanctions against Nemaltsev for the distribution of this video as inappropriate.
In mid-January, a Barnaul court fined Ivan Dmukh 1,000 rubles under the same article for posting the video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002” on VKontakte in 2011. The video was declared extremist in 2013, but we view this ban as unfounded and numerous court cases for its distribution as inappropriate. The video merely lists a number of unrealized campaign promises made by United Russia in its 2002 manifesto and calls to vote for any other party.
Sanctions for Incitement to Separatism
In mid-January, a Magas court terminated the criminal case against Rashid Maisigov, an Ingush activist and a former editor of the FortangaORG portal charged with making public appeals aimed at violating Russia's territorial integrity (Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code). This became possible after the change in the criminal law – now Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code applies only to calls made again within a year after facing the administrative responsibility. Maisigov was charged for his Instagram post, made in February of 2019, in which he called on the population of Ingushetia to secede from Russia and join Georgia, and on the Georgian leadership and the world community to support such a step. In addition, the investigation claimed that he had also posted leaflets in Nazran and Magas that called on other states to issue passports to all residents of the republic.
In our opinion, calls for violent separatism merit prosecution, but peaceful calls to change the status of a particular territory do not, so we welcome the fact that the case has been dropped. Note that, in 2020, the activist was sentenced to three years in prison under Article 228 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (storage of drugs on a large scale), and the prohibited substances were confiscated from him on the same day as the leaflets.
Sanctions for Display of Banned Symbols
In late December, a court in Perm fined Kirill Imashev, an activist of The Other Russia of E. V. Limonov, one and a half thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The charges were based on two videos he saved on VKontakte that contained the symbols of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP). The first was a video montage of the NBP actions, and the second one showed the author of the Big Man Tyrone satirical video blog addressing the National Bolsheviks. The NBP was recognized as an extremist organization in 2007, and we consider this ban inappropriate. Accordingly, in our opinion, it was also inappropriate to charge Imashev with an administrative offense.
In January, journalist Alexandra Teplyakova was fined a thousand rubles in Khabarovsk under the same article. Her live broadcast on the RusNews YouTube channel briefly included in its frame a poster with the image of a dog in a military jacket with swastikas on the shoulders captioned “E-Center Cop Dog”. We believe that the journalist was brought to justice inappropriately, since, in our opinion, the only cases that merit punishment are the ones that use Nazi symbols to advocate Nazism. In this case, the swastika was used as a means of criticizing the activities of law enforcement agencies. In addition, Teplyakova did not intentionally demonstrate these symbols, but only wanted to inform viewers about the poster that had appeared in the city; she only showed the poster for a short time. Unfortunately, even the note, added to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in order to allow the use of Nazi symbols in cases when the use “formed a negative attitude” toward Nazism and contained “no signs of propaganda or justification” of Nazi ideology, does not prevent all cases of what we consider an inappropriate application of this legal norm.
Boris Zhirnov, an Arsenyevskiye Vesti reporter, was arrested for 10 days in the same city for a video on his YouTube channel that included an activist showing on her phone screen a photo made from the inside of a “Furgalomobile” (a car decorated in support of arrested ex-governor Sergei Furgal), where a neo-pagan amulet in the form of the Svarog square was attached to the rear view mirror. The Svarog square was previously used by Northern Brotherhood, a nationalist organization declared extremist in 2012. “Furgalomobile” driver Rostislav Smolensky, an activist of the local protest movement, was placed under arrest for 10 days for the fact of displaying the object. Zhirnov filmed a phone screen with a Svarog square, not to promote the ideology of the Northern Brotherhood, but to inform viewers about the details of Smolensky’s case. Perhaps, in this situation, he should have refrained from deliberately publicly displaying the symbol, since he was apparently aware about its banned status by that time, or should have explicitly condemned the extremist ideology. Despite Zhirnov’s failure to do so, the law enforcement agencies, in our opinion, could have limited their response to requesting the removal of the video that included the prohibited symbol.
Andrei Borovikov, the ex-coordinator of Alexei Navalny’s Arkhangelsk headquarters was arrested in late January under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for eight days. The arrest was based on the fact that, in 2014, he posted on his VKontakte page a parody of the title sequence of the show Friends, which used newsreels showing the Nazi Germany leaders. A swastika armband is visible on Adolf Hitler’s sleeve in one of the shots. In addition, the case documents noted that, in 2013, another user posted on Borovikov's page a picture with a swastika and the inscription “The Object Is under the Nazi Protection” (this image is also included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials). The context, in which Borovikov shared the parody video in 2014, is unclear, and we do not know whether it was accompanied by any comments but neither the content of Borovikov's social network pages, nor his social activities in the recent years indicate sympathy toward Nazism. As for the image with the swastika shared on his page by the third party we cannot rule out the propaganda intent of this post; however, we believe that its author should be the one to face responsibility, and as for Borovikov, it would have been sufficient to demand that he remove this post.
Other Sanctions against Political Activists and Protest Participants
In mid-January, a court in Chelyabinsk acquitted Oksana Yeremina and Yuri Vashurin, who were charged with hooliganism, motivated by political hatred committed by an organized group (Article 213 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). The charge was related to breaking through the police cordon during the “He Is Not Our Tsar” protest action, which took place in Chelyabinsk on May 5, 2018. According to the investigation, Yeremina started urging people around her to break through the cordon, and then she personally began “an active movement forward” and broke through the cordon together with other protesters. Vashurin saw Yeremina, and subsequently, as pointed out by the investigator, he linked elbows with other action participants, broke through the barrier, crossed the intersection and reached the end of the route. According to the case materials, the defendants grossly violated public order with their actions expressing obvious disrespect for society motivated by political hatred of Vladimir Putin.
We welcome the court's decision, as we believe that breaking a police cordon and filling any square or intersection with participants during a mass event can be qualified as a violation of the order for holding a mass event, but not as hooliganism motivated by political hatred. Unless these actions entailed a serious violation of working or recreational environment for citizens, work of institutions, etc., they should not be interpreted as gross violations of public order. These actions also should not be interpreted as expressing a clear disrespect for society, since the participants only expressed their political position, and did not set themselves against the community by violating generally accepted standards of behavior.
In late January, the case under Article 213 Part 1 Paragraph “B” of the Criminal Code (hooliganism based on political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity, or based on hatred or enmity against any social group) was initiated in Krasnodar against local resident Vladimir Yegorov. According to the investigators, during the protest action on January 23, he climbed onto the Kuban Cossacks monument (featuring a Cossack on a horse), “placed underpants on the horse's hoof, then took off his pants exposing his buttocks, turned... towards the administrative building and slapped his buttocks, thus grossly violating public order.”
We believe that Yegorov should not be accused of hate-motivated hooliganism against any social group, since neither the local administration nor the Cossacks form vulnerable social groups in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred. We believe that Yegorov should not have been charged with hooliganism motivated by political hatred; it is generally incorrect to qualify his actions as a gross violation of public order, since, as far as we can judge, they did not entail a violation of the working or recreational environment for citizens, work of institutions, and so on. Rather, in this case, we can talk about disorderly conduct falling under Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
In mid-January, the prosecutor's office of Tatarstan filed a lawsuit to liquidate the All-Tatar Public Center (Vsetatarsky Obschestvennyi Tsentr, VTOTs) and recognize it as an extremist organization. The lawsuit lists several reasons for banning the organization: a warning issued to the VTOTs in 2017 for addressing Deputies on the status of the Tatar language; recognition of the VTOTs Naberezhnye Chelny branch headed by Rafis Kashapov as an extremist organization; a warning issued in 2019 prior to a rally in memory of the Kazan defenders; the fact that VTOTs members who participated in the rally faced administrative responsibility under Article 20.3.1 (incitement to hatred) and the organization's refusal to publicly distance itself from their statements; the allegedly separatist and discriminatory provisions in the VTOTs charter.
We are not familiar with the VTOTs charter, but have to point out that we considered the warning issued by the prosecutor's office in 2017 inappropriate, doubted the charges against the 2019 Kazan rally participants under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, and viewed the verdict against Kashapov for incitement to separatism as clearly inappropriate (and so viewed the prosecutorial arguments in favor of liquidating the VTOTs Naberezhnye Chelny branch as less than convincing).
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
The persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses continued in January. 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 the religious organizations banned even before 2017. We believe that these bans had no legal basis, and we regard them as manifestations of religious discrimination.
In the Jewish Autonomous Region, Yevgeny Golik was issued a suspended sentence of two and a half years' and Anastasia Sycheva – a suspended sentence of two years. Both were convicted under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activity of an extremist organization).
Galina Parkova was issued a suspended sentence of two years and three months on a similar charge in Rostov-on-Don.
New criminal cases were initiated against Mikhail Potapov and Sergei Gobozev from the Udmurt city of Votkinsk under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activity of an extremist organization), as well as against Anatoly Senin from Kyzyl (the article of the charge was not specified).
Felix Makhammadiev, whose Russian citizenship was revoked in the spring of 2020, left his penal colony in late December and was deported to Uzbekistan in January.
In January, the Southern District Military Court passed a verdict in the so-called Belogorsk Hizb ut-Tahrir case in Crimea. Enver Omerov was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment, and Ayder Dzhapparov – to 17 years under Article 30 Part 1 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code (preparing for the forcible seizure of power) and Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activity of a terrorist organization). Riza Omerov (Enver’s son) faces 13 years of imprisonment under Article 30 Part 1, Article 278 and Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participating in the activity of a terrorist organization). They will spend the first two years of the appointed time in prison, the remainder in a maximum security colony. All of them were also sentenced to an additional punishment in the form of restriction of freedom.
A new criminal case against alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters was opened in the Kaluga Region in late January.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic party, has been recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization. However, we consider prosecution against the Hizb ut-Tahrir followers under the “terrorist articles” merely on the basis of their party activity (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) inappropriate, since this party was never implicated in using terrorism.
We learned in January that, in late December, the Yakutsk city court fined Abdulaziz Mashrapov one thousand rubles under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for “mass distribution” in a tea-house dormitory of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah by Abdurrahman Bin Abdulkarim Al-Sheha. This brochure was recognized as extremist in 2016 for promoting the superiority and exclusivity of Islam and inciting hatred of non-Muslims and “polytheists.” In our opinion, this book, which describes the life, deeds and utterances of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the idea of Muslims about his mission and the assessment of Muhammad’s role of by famous thinkers, contains no hate speech. Proclaming one’s own religion to be true and criticism of other religions should not, in and of themselves, be construed as signs of incitement to hatred. Accordingly, we consider the sanction against Mashrapov inappropriate.
Sanctions for Anti-Religious Statements
It became known in mid-January that a resident of the Verkhovsky District in the Oryol Region was fined 75 thousand rubles under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers) for posting a comment about the Virgin Mary on VKontakte. We believe that the vague concept of “insulting the religious feelings of believers” introduced in Article 148 of the Criminal Code does not and cannot have a clear legal meaning. From our point of view, if a text published by a resident of the Oryol region contained insults against representatives of a particular confession or incited hatred towards them, then his actions should have been qualified under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses; otherwise, he should not have been punished at all.
A Tula resident was fined 10 thousand rubles in January under Article 5.26 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (deliberate public desecration of objects, marks and emblems relating to the world outlook symbols thereof). On his social network page, he published a number of satirical cartoon images of Orthodox icons. In our opinion, posting such images should not, in and of itself, be interpreted as a desecration of objects of religious worship, since publishing collages implies no active action with actual religious paraphernalia. It is also worth noting that the legislation fails to define the concept of “desecration” in any way.
Recognizing Materials as Extremist
We found out in January that, back in November 2020, the Prosecutor's Office of the Republic of Tatarstan filed an administrative claim with the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court to recognize 47 titles of books and multi-book series as extremist. The lawsuit addressed the total of 163 publications including many books of the Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Turkish, four of his books in Tatar and two in Russian, Islam in Modern Turkey by Mary Weld (Sükran Vahide) in Russian, as well as Ayats and Hadith in Risale-i Nur by Kenan Demirtaş and Selected Hadith from Qutub al-Sitta by Cemal Uşşak in Turkish. These books were found in the possession of Nakia Sharifullina (charged with organizing the activities of the extremist organization Nurcular under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code), and of seven other female residents of Naberezhnye Chelny.
The experts examined the books in the course of the criminal case and concluded that they represented “ideological sources of the religious extremist association Nurcular.” In addition, the experts decided that the examined materials (which included not only the books, but also audio recordings of the conversations of the defendants in the case) contained statements that incited religious hatred and violence to the point of destruction of the enemy, as well as promoted the idea of superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of their belonging to a religion. The claim provided not a single specific quote to substantiate the law enforcement claims.
In our opinion, works of Said Nursi have been banned inappropriately. As far as we know, they contain no aggressive appeals or attempts to incite violence among their readers, while statements about the truth of one religion and the falsity of others cannot serve as a basis for banning religious literature. Banning an entire list of books only on the grounds that they are related to the teachings of Nursi is even less acceptable. We must also recall that, in 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Russia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by banning 15 works by Nursi. We also doubt the appropriateness of banning the book by Mary Weld, an admirer and a scholar of Said Nursi’s heritage, whose work is the theologian’s biography, as well as the claims against Kenan Demirtas’ work on Risale-i Nur.
In late December, the Moscow prosecutor's office submitted a court claim seeking to recognize The Rose of the Seraphites. The Bogomil Gospel, a book by Veniamin Bereslavsky, bishop of the Orthodox Church the Orthodox Church of the Sovereign Mother of God, as extremist material. According to the experts, the book contained statements regarding the superiority or inferiority of people depending on their religious affiliation, calls for “introducing restrictions or preferences in family relations for a group defined on religious grounds” (with respect to the book’s advocacy of monasticism and/or church marriage), and justification of hate and hostile, intolerant, antagonistic attitude towards a group of individuals identified by their religious affiliation.
We see no reason to ban The Rose of the Seraphites as an extremist material. The book contains the statements about the doctrine espoused by the author, which is extolled as the truth and the salvation, as well as the statements critical of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Judaism, modern church institutions and secular life. All this, however, has nothing to do with incitement to hatred, since the disagreements in question are religious and philosophical and do not result in any calls for aggressive actions or discrimination against other believers. The book’s stand on family relations, psychological effects the book can have on readers, or its difference from the doctrinal literature of the religious movements considered “traditional for Russia” cannot, in and of themselves, serve as grounds for its prohibition, since they do not constitute signs of extremism.
We have doubts about the appropriateness of recognizing some of the materials included on the Federal List in January as extremist. The ban against “The Orthodox Jihad,” a song by the St. Petersburg hardcore band the Marrauders, appears the most problematic. The song’s narrator is intended to represent the voice of radical Orthodox Christians and utters numerous calls to violence, but the song is clearly satirical. The eponymous album, which includes the song, is accompanied by a dedication to “people who use religions to justify their hatred, ignorance and aggressive stupidity.” Unfortunately, as we have noted before, the law enforcement and judicial systems often have difficulties with interpreting works of art. These examples confirm our opinion that, when considering prosecutorial claims to ban certain materials as extremist, courts should pay close attention to both the content and the form/context or these materials.