Misuse of Anti-Extremism in February 2021
In late February, Vladimir Putin signed a law on amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, establishing liability for various violations related to the “sovereign Internet.” In addition to the norms related to technical requirements or personal data, the amendments aim to protect the content of Russian users from the control of large online sites; a new norm, Article 19.7.10-3, has been added to the Code of Administrative Offenses. This article imposes administrative responsibility on owners of any websites (including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) that discriminate against Russian citizens on ethnic, religious and other grounds or based on sanctions imposed against Russia, as well as any websites that remove “socially significant information” and generally impose “restrictions that violate the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to freely seek, receive, transfer, produce and distribute information in any legal way,” that is, any restrictions on content not stipulated by Russian law. First, in accordance with the law adopted in late 2020, an internet resource receives a warning from Roskomnadzor (this decision is made by the Prosecutor General's Office in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) about the need to remove restrictions on the dissemination of information. The website is also entered into the corresponding public register of violators. If it complies with the requirements, it is removed from the register, and if not, then, in accordance with the new amendments, fines are imposed on the responsible parties. Under the new article of the Code of Administrative Offenses, the fine for citizens ranges from 50 to 100 thousand rubles, for officials – from 200 to 400 thousand rubles, and for legal entities – from 600 thousand to 1 million rubles. Repeated violation entails a fine in the amount of 200 to 300 thousand rubles for citizens, 500 to 700 thousand for officials, and 1.5 to 3 million rubles for legal entities. Moreover, according to the previously adopted law, Roskomnadzor is going to restrict access, completely or partially (that is, by slowing down the traffic), to a resource that has not fulfilled the requirements of the Prosecutor General's Office using the mechanisms of the “sovereign Internet.”
In addition, the President signed a law introducing or toughening administrative liability of all categories of “foreign agents” for violations of the operating procedures – absence of the appropriate labeling on materials, a failure to submit or an incomplete submission of information about themselves and their status. The changes also affected Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses on abusing freedom of mass information, which now includes the fines for disseminating information by or about “foreign agents” in the media without the appropriate labeling.
Draft bills, adopted in the first reading in February, increase criminal liability for dissemination via internet of information that contains justification or approval of Nazi crimes or of knowingly false information about the role of the USSR in World War II and introduce administrative liability for legal entities for similar actions. It soon became clear that the new amendments, which significantly expand the composition of Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code, were being prepared for the second reading of these bills. The deputies suggested that punishment under Part 1 of Article 354.1 (justifying Nazi crimes or slandering the policies of the USSR) should be also imposed for public dissemination of knowingly false information about veterans of the Great Patriotic War. At the same time, it was proposed to increase the maximum sanctions under this part of the article to a fine of three million rubles and imprisonment for up to three years. It is also proposed, in Part 2 of the article, to add commission of an act by an organized group to the list of qualifying signs, which already includes use of mass media, the Internet or official position. In addition, under the new proposals, Part 3 of the article, which now punishes the dissemination of “information expressing clear disrespect to society with regard to the days of military glory and the memorable dates of Russia associated with defending the Fatherland, as well as desecration of the symbols of Russia’s military glory,” will be expanded to also cover insults against the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and abasement of honor and dignity of the veterans of the Great Patriotic War, including on the Internet and in mass media. The amendments provide for much harsher penalties in such cases increasing the maximum fine from three hundred thousand to three million rubles and adding imprisonment for up to three years. For a similar crime committed by a group of persons, the deputies propose punishment in the form of a fine of up to five million rubles or imprisonment for up to five years. The deputies seek to introduce similar wording into the Code of Administrative Offenses, with fines for legal entities ranging from three to five million rubles. We believe that the current version of Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code is easily misused to prohibit historical discussion and enable arbitrary persecution. Increase of the criminal penalties and introduction of administrative responsibility for legal entities will expand the scope of the article and its potential to be used for imposing unjustified restrictions against freedom of speech. The abuse potential could grow even further with the introduction of “abasement of honor and dignity” – the concept used by Article 5.61 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (insult) – into a criminal article and from the use of such vague concepts as “insult against the memory.”
It is also worth noting that, in February, State Duma deputies Sergei Boyarsky, Andrey Alshevskikh, Valery Gazzaev and Igor Stankevich submitted for consideration by the lower house of parliament yet another draft law on extrajudicial blocking of information on the Internet. It is proposed to extend this practice to “unreliable information that denigrates the honor and dignity of a person or undermines his reputation and is associated with charging a person with a crime.” A citizen who found such information online would be able to send a claim to the prosecutor of a constituent entity of the Federation requesting measures to remove or block it; the claim needs to include the passport data, contact information, webpage address, and a “substantiated explanation of the inaccuracy” of the information. The prosecutor then contacts Roskomnadzor that ensures the blocking of the relevant content. While during criminal defamation proceedings one needs to prove that a defendant made a knowingly false statement, and in a civil case to protect honor and dignity or business reputation one needs to prove that an accusation is groundless, the proposed procedure most likely implies no substantial examination of the statement in question. Such extrajudicial blocking, if approved, will become yet another tool for suppressing critical speech.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
In mid-February, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Chita found blogger Alexei Zakruzhny, known on social networks under the nickname Lekha Kochegar, guilty under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity) and Article 212 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (calls for mass riots) and issued a suspended sentence of two years and three months with a subsequent probationary period of three years and a three-year ban on website administration with confiscation of equipment. The case was opened based on a YouTube stream, in which the blogger criticized the pandemic-related ban on visiting cemeteries for the “parents day” and called for “demolishing the cordons” at the entrance to the cemetery grounds and, in this way, launching a “bloodless revolution”; he believed that the police would then take the side of the cemetery visitors. In our opinion, prosecution against Zakruzhny is inappropriate, since his statements contained no calls for violent actions, and the very possibility of a revolution at the cemetery is highly unlikely.
At the beginning of the month, the FSB of Russia in the Republic of Kalmykia opened two criminal cases under Article 282.2 Part 1 (organizing the activities of an extremist organization) and Article 282.2 Part 2 (participation in such activities) against two leaders and four active members of a “cell” of the Prisoners Criminal Unity (Arestantskoe Ugolovnoe Yedinstvo, A.U.E.). Investigators believe that this extremist organization existed in order to “promote the ideas of creating an “underworld” government, to use “underworld traditions” instead of legal norms, and to promote “extremist ideology, which consisted of inciting hatred and enmity against the government representatives, primarily against the law enforcement.” A.U.E. was banned as an extremist social movement in August 2020. We believe that A.U.E. is not a single structured movement or organization, but a non-political subculture; it spreads an ideology that could be criminalized, but the application of specifically anti-extremist legal norms against it is inappropriate.
In February, we recorded four cases of prosecution under Article 20.1 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (disrespect of the authorities); two people have already been fined. From our point of view, this norm is redundant and clearly aimed at suppressing criticism against the activities of the government sufficiently protected by other legislative norms. One case was based on a harsh statement against the president, in another case the statement was harshly critical of the court, and in two more cases – the police. Meanwhile, the case under Article 20.1 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses against Anastasia Panchenko, the head of Alexei Navalny’s Krasnodar headquarters, was discontinued, but a report under Article 13.15 Part 9 (dissemination of deliberately unreliable socially significant information under the guise of reliable messages that constitute security threats) was compiled against her instead. On December 1, 2020, Panchenko shared on Instagram Navalny's message that one of his interviews could be examined for extremism. In his message, Navalny characterized investigators and judges as shameless lackeys, and Panchenko accompanied her post with a comment, in which she called Vladimir Putin an extremist and an enemy; both her cases were based on this post. We believe that Panchenko's post did not contain any deliberately false information; it only reflected her political position. It is also unclear what specific threat to life or health of citizens, or a threat to public order or security was caused by this publication from the law enforcement perspective.
The Naberezhnye Chelny City Court of the Republic of Tatarstan in early February fined local activist Fauzia Bayramova 30 thousand rubles under Article 20.3.2 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public calls for separatism). The administrative prosecution against Bayramova was based on her speech at the Scientific and Practical Conference of the All-Tatar Public Center (Vsetatarsky Obschestvennyi Tsentr, VTOTs) in Kazan on February 20, 2020 (the Tatarstan Prosecutor's Office is currently seeking in court to ban VTOTs as an extremist organization). Bayramova spoke about inequality and cultural and spiritual degradation of the Tatars and the need to strive for state self-reliance and build a “Tatar state with Islamic morality” in order to preserve the nation. At the same time, as in her previous public speeches, she did not call for forcible separation of the republic from Russia, and, in our opinion, only calls for violence are punishable. Bayramova had been repeatedly prosecuted for similar statements, including under criminal articles.
The charge of publicly calling for separatism against Left Resistance (Levoye Soprotivleniye) activist Darya Polyudova was dropped in connection with partial decriminalization of Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code. However, she remains under arrest as a defendant under Article 205.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for terrorism or justification of such calls); we consider some of these charges unfounded.
“Extremist statements” made by Bashkir nationalist Airat Dilmukhametov indirectly caused prosecution against Ilmira Bikbaeva, a resident of Ufa, whose case was submitted to the Oktyabrsky District Court of Ufa. She was charged under Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (financing of extremist activities) based to the fact that, in 2018 and 2019, she transferred six thousand rubles as a donation to the card of Agiliash, Dilmukhametov’s mother. Dilmukhametov was sentenced in 2020 to nine years in a maximum security penal colony under an aggregation of Criminal Code articles. Since, in our opinion, this verdict was unfounded, the criminal prosecution of Bikbaeva is also inappropriate. In addition, Bikbaeva reported that her intention for transferring the money was not to finance Dilmukhametov's activities, but to help his elderly mother – the Dilmukhametov family lived only on the Agiliash retirement pension, since Airat could not find employment due to his prior conviction.
Misuse of Measures to Combat Nazism
In February, new criminal cases were initiated under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code for submitting photos of Hitler to an Immortal Regiment Online event. A Tambov resident who submitted the photo through VKontakte is prosecuted under Part 1 of the article (denial of the facts established by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal, or approval of the crimes established by it), while a Vladivostok resident, who submitted the photo through the Memory Bank website – under Part 3 (disseminating information expressing clear disrespect to society with regard to the days of military glory and the memorable dates of Russia, committed publicly). We believe that qualifying under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code the actions of the Internet users who submit such photographs to the Immortal Regiment Online is incorrect. In our opinion, such actions, in and of themselves, do not constitute public approval of the crimes of Nazism, denial of the facts established by the Nuremberg Tribunal, or dissemination of any information about the days of Russia's military glory.
The Nizhnekamsk City Court of Tatarstan in February fined local resident Alexei Vdovkin one thousand rubles in February under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda or demonstration of Nazi symbols or symbols of extremist organizations). Vdovkin posted on his VKontakte page an image of a swastika and a soldier of a Cossack detachment wearing a St. George ribbon with the caption “During the Second World War, St. George ribbons were awarded only in the Russian Vlasov’s regiment that fought on the side of the Nazis.” We believe that the context, in which Nazi symbols are displayed, should be taken into account, and the act should be punishable only when Nazism is being promoted. In this case, the statement expressed the disagreement of the post’s author with the status of the St. George ribbon as a symbol of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Therefore, we consider the persecution of Vdovkin inappropriate.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
The radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir has been recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization, despite the fact that it was never implicated in terrorism. Therefore, 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.
The Nakhimovsky District Court of Sevastopol found Ruslan Bekirov guilty of knowingly giving false testimony (Article 307 part 1 of the Criminal Code) in February and sentenced him to 300 hours of community service. Bekirov was a witness in the case of Enver Seytosmanov sentenced to 17 years in prison for organizing the activities of a terrorist organization (Article 205.5 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) because of his Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. In March 2019, Bekirov testified against Seytosmanov but then stated at the trial that the testimony had been obtained under pressure: he had been detained, taken to the republican FSB department, threatened with a prison sentence, a fine and a tuberculosis infection and released only after he agreed to sign the testimony. According to the investigators (the version accepted by the court), Bekirov, “in the absence of any moral and physical pressure from the investigator,” testified that, in January 2015, he heard “Seytosmanov reporting that he was a Hizb,” and then decided on helping Seytosmanov to avoid legal responsibility.
In mid-February six residents of Crimea and Sevastopol – Lenur Seydametov, Timur Yalkabov, Azamat Eyupov, Yashar Shikhametov, Ernest Ibragimov and Oleg Fyodorov – were placed under arrest as suspects under Article 205.5 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (organizing or participating in a terrorist organization); they are allegedly involved in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
It is known that, in the same few days, a special law enforcement operation to detain alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir took place in 10 regions of the country – not only in Crimea, but also in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Primorsky Krai, Krasnodarsky Krai, Bashkortostan, Dagestan, and also in the Oryol, Kaluga and Ivanovo regions. Criminal proceedings were reportedly initiated against seven detainees.
Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, which we regard as a manifestation of religious discrimination, continued in February.
The Abinsky District Court of Krasnodarsky Krai sentenced Alexander Ivshin, a 63-year-old resident of the village of Kholmskaya, to seven and a half years in a minimum security colony under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code.
In Birobidzhan, seven Jehovah's Witnesses faced criminal sentences under Article 282.2 Part 2 in February. Artur Lokhvitsky received a suspended sentence of two and a half years with a three-year probationary period; Igor Tsaryov received a suspended sentence of two and a half years with a two-year probationary period and restriction of freedom for one year; Konstantin Guzev received a suspended sentence of two and a half years with a two-year probationary period. Larisa Artamonova, Svetlana Monis, Yulia Kaganovich, and Elena Reino-Chernyshova were fined 10 thousand rubles each. The prosecutor's office was not satisfied with such a light court-imposed punishment – in late February, the department filed an appeal against the sentences and asked for the women to be sentenced to four years in a minimum security colony with the subsequent two-year restriction of freedom. The prosecution views a fine of ten thousand is an excessively lenient measure that does not correspond to the “extent of the social danger of the crime.”
In Khakassia, the Abakan City Court sentenced 46-year-old Roman Baranovsky under Article 282.2 Part 1 to six years of imprisonment in a minimum security colony with loss of right to engage in leadership activities for a period of five years and an additional punishment in the form of restriction of freedom for 18 months; his 69-year-old mother Valentina Baranovskaya was sentenced to two years of imprisonment in a minimum security colony with restriction of freedom for six months under Article 282.2 Part 2.
In February, we learned that two cases that involve Jehovah's Witnesses had been retried. In late January, the Ulyanovsk Regional Court, based on a complaint from the prosecutor's office, revised the sentence to Sergei Mysin requalifying his actions from Article 282.2 Part 2 to Article 282.2 Part 1 and increased his suspended sentence by six months to the total of four and a half years. Meanwhile, the Kostroma Regional Court took the opposite direction and reduced the punishment of spouses Sergei and Valeria Raiman, who were facing suspended sentences of eight and seven years respectively under both Parts 1 and 2 of Article 282.2, down to suspended sentences of three and two years. The court dropped Part 1 of the article from the charges.
New cases against Jehovah's Witnesses were reported as well.
In Moscow, a criminal case was opened in February under Article 282.2 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code; searches took place at 16 addresses in Moscow, Khimki and Chekhov. According to the investigators, Jehovah's Witnesses organized a community that held clandestine meetings to study religious literature in an apartment on Dybenko Street and online meetings via videoconferencing. Alexander Serebryakov and Yuri Temirbulatov were detained and then arrested. Earlier, in November 2020, four believers were placed under house arrest in Moscow for their involvement in the activities of a banned organization. An investigation in the case of five members of the Chekhov community was completed in December 2020.
In Belovo of the Kemerovo Region, a criminal case under Article 282.2 Part 1 was opened against Sergei Ananin charged with creating a Jehovah's Witnesses community in the city; he was placed under arrest.
In Birobidzhan, the case under Article 282.2 Part 1.1 (recruitment into an extremist organization) and Part 2 was opened against Agnessa Postnikova; it has been merged into one court case with the case of her husband Oleg opened a year ago.
In Kovrov of the Vladimir Region, as part of the investigation of the case under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, a series of searches was conducted in Jehovah's Witnesses’ homes; 23 people were interrogated, and 65-year-old Boris Simonenko was arrested.