Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2021
In early March, Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding the list of online information subject to extrajudicial blocking – electoral commissions have been authorized to make decisions to temporarily block illegal online electioneering. Upon receiving a notification from an electoral commission about the presence of such information on the Internet, Roskomnadzor will have to immediately send the provider a request to block the problematic site (which must also be executed immediately). According to the law, the access restrictions can begin no earlier than the day of the announcement of the elections and ends five days after the date when the results are determined. Given that illegal campaigning is likely to appear on social networks and that authorities are technically unable to selectively block social network messages, the existence of such a law increases the risk of complete blocking of certain social networks or other sanctions against them during an electoral campaign in accordance with the rules adopted late last year on the prohibited social network content.
At the same time, the State Duma passed in the first reading a draft bill on extrajudicial blocking of information “supporting” or “justifying” extremism and terrorism, developed by the Duma Commission on the Investigation of Foreign Interference in Russia's Internal Affairs and submitted to the State Duma in July 2020. Article 15.3 Part 1 of the Federal Law “On Information.” If such a law is adopted, not only the information that contains “calls for mass disorders, pursuance of extremist activities” (current version) but also “support and (or) justification of the extremist activities, including terrorist activities” will be subject to extrajudicial blocking. A bill on the extrajudicial blocking of “unreliable information that discredits the honor and dignity of a person or undermines his or her reputation and is connected with accusing a person of a crime” was also adopted in the first reading. Both norms will give the authorities additional instruments to restrict public discussion and suppress critical speech.
In connection with the Twitter slowdown organized by Roskomnadzor in March, we learned that on February 12, 2020, the government passed the decision “On Approval of the Rules for Centralized Management of a Public Communication Network.” Based on this document, the agency was able to reduce the speed of access to photos and videos on Twitter and also announced its readiness to completely block the resource in case of non-compliance with the official requirements. Roskomnadzor can act similarly toward any information on the basis of the “Sovereign Internet” law if it decides to add it to the list of security threats; meanwhile, according to Clause 5 of the Decision, “undermining the ability of the network to resist <...> influences associated with the dissemination of information on the Internet, access to which is subject to restrictions under the legislation of the Russian Federation” also constitutes a security threat to the functioning of the Internet on Russia’s territory. The appropriateness of this method of addressing non-compliance with Roskomnadzor's requirements is questionable – a traffic slowdown constitutes a sanction against a social network, but sanctions should be directly stipulated by law, not by secondary legislation.
In late March, the Federation Council approved a package of amendments to strengthen responsibility for the rehabilitation of Nazism, after the package was adopted by the State Duma in the second and third readings earlier in the month. The amendments were signed by the president on April 5. The package of laws strengthens criminal liability for the rehabilitation of Nazism on the Internet, introduces penalties for “insulting the memory” of veterans and slander against them, and expands the administrative liability for legal entities. The amendments increase the likelihood of the already poorly formulated Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code on the rehabilitation of Nazism being used to impose unjustified restrictions on freedom of speech; the article now includes a broad interpretation of “abasement of honor and dignity” – the concept used by Article 5.61 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (insult) and the vague term “insult against the memory.”
In March, the State Duma approved amendments to the federal law “On Education” in the second and third readings and the Federation Council approved them; the president signed the law on April 5. The amendments provide for the introduction into the law of the concept of “educational activities,” defined as activities to disseminate various knowledge and experience carried out outside the framework of educational programs. According to the law, the procedure, conditions, and forms of conducting this broadly defined “educational activity” should be determined by the government, and the federal government bodies are responsible for coordinating the participation of educational organizations in international scientific cooperation. The law unreasonably expands the powers of the authorities in the field of education – in fact, it expands their powers over any communications. Besides, by analogy with the existing restrictions on pedagogical activity, the law introduces a ban on the use of educational activities “to incite hatred” and “to propagate the exceptionalism on the basis of various group affiliations, “including by reporting inaccurate information about the historical, national, religious and cultural traditions of peoples, or information intended to encourage actions contrary to the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”
Amendments to the federal law “On Non-Profit Organizations” passed the second and third readings in the State Duma and were approved by the Federation Council in March. Vladimir Putin signed the law on April 5, 2021. The law stipulates that non-profit organizations (NPOs) included in the register of entities “performing the functions of a foreign agent” must submit their programs “declared for implementation” to the Ministry of Justice prior to implementing them, and must also annually submit to the Ministry the documentation on “ongoing programs” and activities, reports on the implementation of programs and activities, or information on the fact that the events never took place. The same requirement is introduced for the local divisions of foreign NPOs, but their deadline for submitting such reports will now be determined by the government, and the deadline for their audit reports will be determined by the Ministry of Justice. At the same time, the provision of the Ministry of Justice mandate, which allows to prohibit the entire NPO program or part of it, has been extended to the “foreign agent” NPOs; if a prohibited program is implemented, the NPO is subject to liquidation (until now, such a procedure was valid only for foreign NPOs). The list of grounds for conducting an unscheduled inspection of an NPO has been supplemented by the case when the official bodies receive information about the participation of this NPO in the activities of “undesirable organizations.” Russian legal entities whose beneficial owners are foreign citizens or stateless persons have now also been included in the list of foreign funding sources for “foreign agent” NPOs. We believe that increasing the severity of the legislation on “foreign agents” indicates an escalating attack on freedom of speech and freedom of association in Russia.
In March, a law on amendments to the federal law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” was adopted in the second and third readings and approved by the Federation Council. Vladimir Putin signed it on April 5. Among other legislative innovations, the law indicates that the following types of persons are not allowed to be leaders or members of religious groups: a foreign citizen or a stateless person, whose continued stay in the Russian Federation has been deemed undesirable; a person included on the Rosfinmonitoring List of Extremists and Terrorists; a person in respect of whom a court decision established that their actions amounted to extremist activity; an individual whose accounts are frozen by the Interdepartmental Commission on Countering the Financing of Terrorism. Thus, the requirements already present in the legislation on non-profit organizations, including religious ones, are being extended to include the leaders and members of religious groups. In our opinion, these new restrictions represent an excessive intrusion into the exercise of the right to freedom of religion – even involvement in illegal activities should not deprive a person of the opportunity to be a member of a religious organization or group because this right is guaranteed by the constitutional provision regarding the right to profess one's religion “together with others” (Article 28).
In mid-March, in accordance with the 2020 version of the Strategy for Countering Extremism, the government submitted to the State Duma the draft amendments to the law “On Countering Extremist Activity,” providing for the creation of a “specialized information databank of extremist materials.” The Ministry of Justice is expected to enter the materials recognized by the courts as extremist into this databank, while continuing to add new entries with information about these materials into the already existing Federal List of Extremist Materials. As previously stated by the Ministry of Justice, the unified databank will simplify the comparison and identification of extremist materials discovered by state authorities with the previously prohibited ones.
The Activity of the Constitutional Court
In March, the Constitutional Court of Russia published its ruling rejecting the request of the Supreme Court of Karelia to review the constitutionality of Article 22 Part 2 of the Federal Law “On Citizenship of the Russian Federation.” The appeal was related to the claim by Andrei Novikov, a native of the Ukrainian SSR, who moved to Kaliningrad in 1987 and then to Petrozavodsk, and received Russian citizenship in late 2004. In 2017, he was convicted of preparing to participate in the activities of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization (Article 30 Part 1 and Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). He was released from the colony in 2019, and, in 2020, the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia in Moscow canceled the decision to admit Novikov to Russian citizenship. The Petrozavodsk City Court rejected his claim against the Ministry of Internal Affairs; however, the Supreme Court of Karelia, when considering his appeal, granted the request to refer the case to the Constitutional Court. The reason for revoking the decision to grant citizenship to Novikov was the law adopted in 2017, according to which commission of crimes covered by several articles of the Criminal Code, including articles on terrorism and participation in terrorist and extremist organizations, is equivalent to reporting of knowingly false information about the obligation to comply with the Constitution and legislation of Russia. The Constitutional Court indicated that canceling the decision to admit a person to Russian citizenship “is not a deprivation of citizenship, but a constitutionally permissible measure, given that the decision of the authorized body to revoke the decision on granting the citizenship is not arbitrary.” The Constitutional Court found untenable the argument that these amendments cannot have a retroactive effect – that is, that they should only apply to offenders who acquired citizenship after their adoption. The court stated that the overturn of the decision on admission to citizenship on the above grounds “is not a measure of responsibility, but is instead, by its legal nature, a constitutional-restorative measure.” At the same time, the Constitutional Court believes that making the norm applicable only to people who were granted citizenship after its adoption would put them in an unequal position with those who had received their citizenship earlier. At the same time, the Constitutional Court pointed to its past definitions, according to which the fact of knowingly reporting false information is not an unconditional basis for a decision to revoke citizenship, and that all the particular circumstances of the case should be taken into account when making such a decision.
A similar decision was made by the Constitutional Court regarding the complaint of Yevgeny Kim, who, in April 2019, upon his release from the penal colony, where he had been serving time for involvement in the banned religious association Nurcular (in our opinion, the verdict against him was inappropriate), was deprived of his Russian citizenship and sent to the Temporary Detention Center for Foreign Citizens (Tsentr vremennogo soderzhaniya inostrannykh grazhdan, TsVSIG), where he still remains imprisoned today, since he has no other citizenship, and, accordingly, has nowhere to be deported. The Constitutional Court indicated that the very norms governing the detention of a stateless person in the TsVSIG do not violate their constitutional rights and freedoms. The court, nevertheless, insisted that such a measure was “optional,” and should only be resorted to if such restriction of freedom “is really necessary to ensure the forced deportation.” The Constitutional Court also reminded that, back in 2017, it recommended providing a migrant status for stateless persons to avoid such risks. This requirement of the Constitutional Court was fulfilled in February 2021 – under the newly adopted amendments to the Federal Law “On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens in the Russian Federation,” stateless persons will be able to obtain a temporary identity card valid for up to ten years, which will allow them to legally stay and work in Russia. Even though the amendments will only enter into force in August, the court insisted that the courts “cannot be ignoring” them now.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements
At the beginning of the month, Alexei Popov, a Marxist activist from Kamensk-Shakhtinsky became a suspect under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity on the Internet). The case was based on Popov's VKontakte posts, in particular, the entry that said that, in the event of imperialist war, one should “raise arms against one's own liberal government,” and then “move the fire of revolution to a country or a bloc of countries at war with Russia.” According to Popov, his case file mentions that his posts contain signs of inciting hatred towards the social group “billionaires.” In our opinion, Popov's statement about the imperialist war gives no reason to charge him with calling for the violent overthrow of the government, since they discuss a purely speculative and unlikely situation. As for billionaires, in our opinion, they do not form a vulnerable social group in need of protection from manifestations of hatred.
The home of Fauzia Bayramova, a seventy-year-old activist of the Tatar national movement, was searched, as part of the investigation of a criminal case under Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred) in Naberezhnye Chelny in late March. As it turned out, the case was initiated back in June of 2020. Bayramova believes that the searches and the investigation are related to the fact that she and other activists addressed a rally in memory of the Kazan defenders who died during the capture of the city by the troops of Ivan the Terrible, which took place in Kazan on October 12, 2019. Bayramova said in her speech at the rally that the Tatars need to realize that they will either get rid of colonial oppression and preserve their language, religion, and statehood, or transform from “Tatars, Muslims,” who go to heaven, into “infidel Russians, Chinese” who are destined to go to hell. We interpret these words as a warning against assimilation, but the experts brought in by the police concluded that Bayramova's statements contained signs of incitement to hatred on ethnic and religious grounds. On June 4, 2020, the activist was sentenced to a fine under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, similar in composition to Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code and applicable to the first violation committed in the 12-month period. The very next day, a criminal case was opened under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. We do not know the exact content of the charges against Bayramova, but, in general, the idea of the “decolonization” of Tatarstan comes up over and over again in her speeches. However, it is not accompanied by calls to any aggressive actions. The activist repeatedly faced sanctions under various articles. We believe that such statements should not be criminalized as incitement to hatred based on ethnicity or as incitement to separatism. The criminalization of public debate and peaceful political struggle over the status of specific regions leads to unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression.
Several people were fined in March under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for inciting hatred of the police. From our point of view, law enforcement officials and government officials should not be considered a vulnerable social group in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred; the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly confirmed this position.
In March, we learned about several people fined under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (mass distribution of extremist materials) for distributing the banned video about unfulfilled campaign promises of the United Russia party, “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny, which was declared extremist in 2013. The video “Let's Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” which often becomes the basis for sanctions against opposition-minded social network users, merely lists a number of unfulfilled campaign promises from the 2002 United Russia party manifesto and calls to vote for any party other than the ruling party. We view the prohibition of this video and sanctions for its distribution as inappropriate. In Tobolsk of the Tyumen Region, Yuri Yukhnevich, a deputy of the Tyumen Regional Duma from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, was fined 1,000 rubles for sharing the video; Yukhnevich used to speak against politically motivated persecution and called for the return of municipal elections of the local authorities. We recall that individuals punished under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses lose passive suffrage for a year after the enforcement of a court's ruling. A 24-year-old local resident was fined in Ryazan. In the Republic of Mari El, Galina Poptsova, a resident of the village of Orshanka, was fined in the amount of one thousand rubles; Andrei Savelyev and Konstantin Pakhmutov faced the same punishment in Yoshkar-Ola; the case of another Yoshkar-Ola resident, Olesya Volkova, was closed since, when the prosecutor issued a decision to initiate proceedings, the video was no longer present on Volkova's page.
Sanctions for Anti-Government Group Activities
In early March, a criminal case was initiated in Izhevsk under Article 213 Part 1 paragraph “b” of the Criminal Code (hooliganism committed on the basis of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on the basis of hatred or enmity against any social group). Anastasia Ponkina, an activist of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), became a suspect in the investigation. According to the investigation, on January 23, 2021, Ponkina led the citizens, who gathered on Tsentralnaya Square in Izhevsk, onto the traffic area of Pushkinskaya Street, where a mass event of at least two thousand people subsequently took place. In our opinion, leading people out into the street does not qualify as hooliganism, in and of itself, if it did not infringe upon the public right to work and leisure, the work of institutions, etc., and thus did not lead to a gross violation of public order manifested in patent contempt of society. Earlier, similar charges had been brought against Chelyabinsk activists Oksana Yeremina and Yuri Vashurin, but the court acquitted them.
A criminal case was opened In Chelyabinsk under Article 282.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of an extremist organization) against Ivan Alekseev, a former member of the local branch of the Other Russia party; he is charged with continuing the activities of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), but the exact nature of the charges remains unknown. Earlier, in August-September 2020, three activists of the Other Russia received suspended sentences of various lengths under the same Article 282.2 Part 2. We view the prohibition of the NBP and sanctions against activists for participation in the organization as inappropriate (our argumentation can be found here). The attack on the monument to Czechoslovak Legion soldiers in Chelyabinsk as well as the plan to set fire to the Prosecutor's Office building in protest against the beating and rape of a detainee that had taken place in the district police department, which form the basis for the charges against the Other Russia activists, could have been qualified under other articles of the Criminal Code.
In addition, two cases were initiated in March under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code on the charges of continuing the activities of AUE. We would like to remind you that, in our opinion, the prohibition of the criminal AUE subculture as a certain structured extremist organization was legally questionable (for more details, see here).
Sanctions for Display of Banned Symbols
In March, three people were inappropriately punished under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses on displaying banned symbols. We would like to reiterate that we consider sanctions under this article justified only if the symbols are displayed to promote a socially dangerous ideology.
In March, it became known that Dmitry Miropoltsev, a lawyer and activist from Kaltan, Kemerovo Region, had obtained compensation in court for moral damage in connection with the case arbitrarily filed against him under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. Miropoltsev‘s claim asked for 20 thousand rubles in compensation, but the court fined the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the amount of 5 thousand rubles. The police filed their report after finding on Miropoltsev's VKontakte page a screenshot from a federal TV channel's story about a flash mob dedicated to the 55th anniversary of the first manned space flight, which took place in Penza in 2016. Participants of the flash mob – representatives of the regional branch of the officially organized Russian Student Brigades movement – lined up in the number “55,” which looked like a swastika from above. However, in November 2019, the Kaltansky District Court of the Kemerovo Region terminated the proceedings for lack of corpus delicti, stating that “from the graphic file presented in connection with the charge against D. D. Miropoltsev, it follows that it contains two digits “5” (signs for recording the specific values of a number).” Miropoltsev himself linked the case against him to his efforts at fighting corruption in the region and challenging the local election law.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
In early March, the Central District Military Court in Samara delivered a verdict in the case of Radik Khairutdinov and Elmar Mammadov, charged with involvement in the banned radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Mamedov was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum-security colony for participation in a terrorist organization (Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code) and public calls for terrorist activities committed on the Internet (Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code); Khairutdinov was sentenced to 11 years in a maximum-security colony under Article 205.5 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. We are not familiar with the content of the materials disseminated by Mamedov on the Internet. In general, however, we consider prosecution against the Hizb ut-Tahrir followers under the “terrorist articles” merely based on their party activity (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) inappropriate. Hizb ut-Tahrir has been recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization, even though it was never implicated in terrorism.
The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses continued actively in March. It is worth reminding that the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and 395 of their local religious communities were banned as extremist in 2017 on charges of distributing banned Jehovah's Witnesses materials. We believe that both the prohibition of Jehovah’s Witnesses' materials and organizations and the prosecution against believers for continuing the activities of their banned communities are groundless, and view these actions by the authorities as religious discrimination and a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of religion.
In March, five guilty verdicts were issued against five Jehovah's Witnesses followers.
In March, we learned of five new criminal cases against Jehovah's Witnesses.
In addition, Jehovah's Witnesses Sergei Belousov, Andrei Kolesnichenko, Alexei Yershov, and Andrei Ledyaykin from Seversk of the Tomsk Region were charged in March with participation in the activities of an extremist organization as suspects in the case of Yevgeny Korotun, opened back in the summer of 2020.
Several additional believers under investigation under Article 282.2 in different regions of Russia, had a charge under Article 282.3 of the Criminal Code (financing of extremist activities) added to their cases in March.
On the last day of the month, the Oktyabrsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared the JW Library mobile application banned for distribution in Russia. The decision was based on the fact that the app contained Jehovah's Witnesses' materials recognized as extremist, including the New World Translation of the Bible. Reportedly, the court's decision will be forwarded to Roskomnadzor, and then the application will be blocked. The app was declared prohibited for distribution under Chapter 27.1 of the Code of Administrative Judicial Procedure, under the procedure that was developed to block specific materials previously recognized as extremist, and, in theory, should not apply to entire online libraries containing other materials besides the prohibited ones.
Sanctions for Anti-Religious Statements
In Chita, in early March, the magistrate's court sentenced an 18-year-old local blogger to 120 hours of community service under Article 148 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers in places specially designed for worship). In late July 2020, a young man made a TikTok video, which shows him entering the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and, after having crossed himself, lighting a candle from a church candle. Once the video got into the media, the blogger apologized for it three times, reported receiving threats, and added that he had not known about the possible criminal liability. The Chita resident violated the rules of conduct in the temple, however, judging by the video, there were no other visitors in the vicinity, and his actions did not attract anyone's attention, caused no damage to religious objects, and, in general, did not pose a significant danger to society, therefore we believe that in this case criminal prosecution was unnecessary.