In early December, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law regulating the activities of “foreign agents” and introducing a number of new restrictions, which further developed the framework law “On Control over the Activities of Persons Under Foreign Influence” that came into effect on December 1.
The president also approved a law introducing a ban on the dissemination of information “promoting non-traditional sexual relations and (or) preferences, pedophilia, or sex change.” In addition to imposing restrictions on such information specifically, the law gives Roskomnadzor the right to delegate the task of monitoring various types of illegal content to a third-party organization designated by the government. The law on consumer protection was also amended to prohibit the sale of any product “containing information the dissemination of which entails administrative or criminal liability.”
In mid-December, Putin signed amendments to the Air Code of the Russian Federation, which forbid hiring persons included on the Rosfinmonitoring List of Extremists and Terrorists for any jobs in the aviation industry. The list includes not only convicted offenders but also suspects and defendants in criminal cases related to extremism or terrorism.
In late December, the president signed several new laws amending the Criminal Code (CC). The amendments criminalize aiding sabotage (new Article 281.1 CC), training for the purpose of sabotage (Article 281.2 CC) and organizing sabotage or participating in a sabotage community (Article 281.3 CC). These offenses carry penalties of up to 20 years of incarceration or life imprisonment. In addition, the list of circumstances aggravating punishment for general crimes (Article 63 CC) came to include an entry on crimes committed in order to promote, justify and support sabotage. In accordance with another law, suspects and defendants under new articles will be entered on the above-mentioned Rosfinmonitoring List. Yet another newly signed law added a new entry – instructions on the illegal manufacture of ammunition for firearms – to the list of content subject to extrajudicial blocking upon request of the Prosecutor General's Office.
A new law granting the St. George's Ribbon the status of a symbol of Russia's military glory was signed as well. In fact, law enforcement agencies have previously treated the ribbon as a symbol of military glory – we know of several criminal cases initiated under Article 354.1 CC for its desecration. However, the defendants in some of these cases perceived the ribbon not as a symbol of victory in the Great Patriotic War but as an attribute of one of the parties in the conflict that began in 2014 in the south-east of Ukraine. The defendants showed disrespect for the ribbon not to discredit the victory over Nazism but to criticize the current political course of the Russian authorities. We question the notion that people should face criminal prosecution to protect individual symbols from manifestations of criticism, even if extreme. We should also keep in mind that in General Comment No. 34 to Article 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee expresses concern about laws on such acts as disrespect for the flag and symbols.
The president also signed several amendments to modify and make harsher the norms of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) and CC regarding the activities of “foreign agents.” At the same time, punishments under Article 239 CC (creating a non-profit organization that infringes upon the liberties and rights of individuals) were increased both for the activities of NGOs that encourage citizens to refuse their civic duties, and for creating associations whose activities involve violence against citizens. The maximum penalties for these acts will reach six and seven years in prison, respectively.
Finally, the public consideration took place in December regarding the proposed government decree amendments, which provide state institutions with exclusive authority to conduct forensic linguistic and psychological-linguistic expert examinations. Although the quality of such examinations, in our opinion, does not directly depend on whether they are done in state or non-state institutions, the proposed restrictions raise some concerns. Now the parties will lose an opportunity to involve independent experts in the trial, so the change may have a negative impact on the adversarial system of justice.
Prosecutions for Discrediting the Actions of the Russian Armed Forces or Government Agencies
We believe that criminal sanctions for discrediting the actions of the Russian armed forces and state agencies abroad constitute an unreasonable restriction of the right to freedom of expression and are specifically intended to suppress criticism of the official political course. Therefore, we view prosecution under these articles for statements that contain no direct calls for violence as inappropriate.
According to Mediazona, in the period from March to mid-December, Russian courts received 5,518 cases under Article 20.3.3 CAO on discrediting the use of the armed forces and government agencies. Criminal prosecutions under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC for repeated violation of the ban continued as well.
In Voronezh, such a case was initiated against Yevgeny Karpov from Voronezh, who had previously been fined under Article 20.3.3 CAO for his publications on Telegram and YouTube.
In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Alexander Vdovichenko, a citizen of Ukraine living in Russia since 2013, who had previously been arrested on attempted murder charges, became a suspect under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC. The new case was based on statements made in a private conversation. Earlier, Vdovichenko had also been fined under an administrative article due to a comment he left on Sakh.com.
Two cases were opened in Arkhangelsk under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC. The court imposed a preventive measure in the form of a ban on certain actions on activist Yelena Kalinina, who had previously been fined twice under Article 20.3.3 CAO for her VKontakte posts. The same preventive measure was imposed on student Olesya Krivtsova. Previously, she was fined under Article 20.3.3 CAO for attaching an anti-war leaflet to a mailbox. The criminal charges pertained to an anti-war post of Krivtsova’s friend Ilya Leshukov on VKontakte shared by her. In addition, Krivtsova was charged with publicly justifying terrorism on the Internet (Article 205.2 Part 2 CC) for her post about the explosion of the Crimean bridge.
In Komi, former school history teacher Nikita Tushkanov was placed under arrest under the same Article 280.3 Part 1 as well as Article 205.2 Part 2 CC. Previously, he had repeatedly faced administrative responsibility for social network posts critical of the authorities including under Article 20.3.3 CAO. The charges against Tushkanov under Article 205.2 CC were also related to his statements about the Crimean bridge explosion.
We are not familiar with the exact content of the statements by Krivtsova and Tushkanov. If they really approved of terrorist practices, their prosecution under Article 205.2 CC may be justified. You can read more about our position regarding the specifics of applying this article here.
In Kalmykia, a court imposed a ban on certain actions as a preventive measure on Valery Badmaev, the editor-in-chief of the Sovremennaya Kalmykia newspaper. The case against him under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC is based on a video he shared of a man, who introduced himself as a fighter of the Azov regiment (which is recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization), talking about actions of the Russian armed forces.
Yevgeny Fedosov, a resident of Nizhnevartovsk (Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug) became a suspect under the same article. Several materials he shared on VKontakte attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies. One of them blamed Vladimir Putin for military operations in Ukraine. In the summer, Fedosov was fined under Article 20.3.3 CAO for spreading anti-war hashtags on social networks.
Andrei Belozerov, a former teacher at Belogorsk Technological College, was placed under house arrest in Simferopol under Article 280.3 Part 1. Earlier this year, he was brought to administrative responsibility on the charges under Article 20.3.3 CAO (as well as charges under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO, which we also consider inappropriate) for the distribution of Ukrainian songs “Bayraktar” and “Chervona Kalyna.” The criminal prosecution relates to his October post on VKontakte, where he said that the Russian armed forces had first intentionally targeted women and children in Donetsk, and then began to bomb Ukrainian cities.
Finally, in Shuya of Ivanovo Region, the third criminal case under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC was initiated against activist Sergei Veselov. This time, the charges were based on a video he had published on his own channel and another video, published on the channel Opposition 2.0, which discussed the case against Veselov and included his statement.
Sanctions for Inciting Hatred
In early December, a court in Abakan fined Expert-Media LLC, the parent company of the Novy Focus online magazine in Khakassia, 450 thousand rubles under Article 20.3.1 CAO (incitement of hatred or enmity). The case was based on several publications, which the experts involved found to contain the signs of humiliating the dignity of law enforcement officers. We believe that the company was fined inappropriately: police officers should not be considered a vulnerable social group in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred (we also believe that the vague concept of “social group” should be excluded from anti-extremist legislation altogether). As the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly pointed out, law enforcement officers must be extremely tolerant of criticism unless it involves a real threat of violence. The materials published in New Focus criticized the work of law enforcement agencies in Russia in general and Khakassia in particular but contained no aggressive statements. Let us add that Mikhail Afanasyev, editor-in-chief of Novy Focus, faces charges of disseminating deliberately false information about the Russian armed forces using his official position (paragraph “a” of article 207.3 Part 2 CC) for publishing a material, which included an assertion that 11 National Guard fighters from Khakassia had refused to participate in hostilities in Ukraine.
We received information on another punishment for critical statements about the police that was imposed back in September. The court in Voronezh fined a local resident Fyodor Mikheev 10 thousand rubles under Article 20.3.1 CAO for publishing on VKontakte in 2021 an image that contained a textual statement about the police. Police officers were characterized as worthless beings who have lost their humanity. The text contained no calls for violence, so we are inclined to view the sanction against Mikheev as inappropriate.
In Korsakov (the Sakhalin Region), a court fined Alexei Rybakov 10 thousand rubles in October for leaving an offensive comment under an Instagram post about the promotion in ranks of Rossiana Markovskaya, press secretary to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. We believe that civil servants should not be considered a social group in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred. Moreover, as pointed out in the resolution issued by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, criticism of officials in the media should not, in and of itself, be viewed as an act intended to humiliate their dignity, since the limits of acceptable criticism of officials are wider than those of private individuals (and, in our view, this argument applies not only to media publications but also to posts by ordinary users).
It should be noted that one similar case involving criticism of civil servants was closed in late November – the case of journalist Maria Antyusheva from NGS 24.RU, who was fined 20 thousand rubles in October for two Telegram posts. In one of them, Antyusheva scolded “all these Putins and Penzins” (referring to deputy Yelena Penzina from Krasnoyarsk) for not sending their loved ones to participate in a special operation. In her second post, made on October 7, Antyusheva wished an unnamed man a painful death and a million years of suffering in hell for his birthday. The regional court emphasized that the journalist did not call for any illegal actions, and thus her actions were not aimed at inciting hatred or enmity. In addition, the court noted that the case presented no solid evidence that Antyusheva criticized Putin and Penzina specifically in connection with their professional activities in Russia’s government bodies.
In Prokopyevsk of the Kemerovo Region, Dmitry Ponamaryov was fined 10 thousand rubles under Article 20.3.1 CAO in December for an offensive publication about the Russian armed forces and citizens mobilized into the special military operation. We tend to believe that military personnel, including those called up for military service, need no additional protection under Article 20.3.1 CAO, and therefore there were no grounds for prosecuting Ponamaryov unless his statements contained calls for violence.
In Ufa, Fail Alchinov, the former chairman of the banned Bashkir nationalist organization Bashkort, was fined the same amount for publishing in the Bashkir language a VKontakte post against mobilization in September. In our opinion, the post contained no signs of inciting hatred. Alchinov did not call for violence or discrimination against Russians, but only criticized the government policy.
In Perm, the case under Article 20.3.1 CAO was initiated against ex-deputy of the local legislative assembly Konstantin Okunev in late December. According to the prosecutor's office, the politician published three posts on VKontakte in August–October 2022. The experts, brought in to examine the posts, found them to contain negative statements against people who identified with the political course of the Russian President. We believe that supporters of a particular government policy do not need special protection from manifestations of hatred. We reviewed the content of two out of the three posts in question and found no aggressive appeals. To the best of our knowledge, the third post also contained no call for violence. In his statements, Okunev merely condemned the actions of the authorities and the views of his political opponents and criticized his compatriots for their low level of education and their civic passivity.
In Arkhangelsk, local activist Nikita Onegin was sentenced to 50 hours of community service under Article 20.3.1 CAO. The case was based on his VKontakte comment, which the experts involved in the case found to contain signs of inciting hatred towards the social group “Russian people.” As far as we know, Onegin's comment contained no calls for violence or discrimination. Although the activist used a pejorative ethnonym, which can be perceived as degrading, we interpret his statement as critical of his political opponents from the ranks of older Russian citizens who support the government's course.
Sanctions for Displaying Banned Symbols
Nikita Onegin, already mentioned above, was brought to justice under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO (public demonstration of prohibited symbols): the court fined him 1,500 rubles for posting the comment “Glory to Ukraine!” on VKontakte. We believe that the case against Onegin under this legal norm is inappropriate, since the article penalizes displaying the symbols or attributes of banned organizations, not publishing their slogans. In addition, the slogan “Glory to Ukraine,” which came into use in the early 20th century, should not be viewed solely as the motto of Ukrainian nationalist organizations banned in Russia. In recent years it has been used everywhere in Ukraine and since 2018 has been an official greeting in the Ukrainian army and police.
In Crimea, Yunus Budzhek, Dilyaver Memetov and Valentin Komissarenko received from 11 to 13 days of arrest under the same article; they were also fined under Article 20.3.3 Part 1 CAO. According to the court, on the evening of December 11, they were playing and loudly singing some “Ukrainian nationalist songs,” including “Chervona Kalyna,” outside a store in the village of Zolotoe Pole. “Chervona Kalyna” is a folk song known in its modern form since 1914. It was used as an anthem by the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen and then, for over a hundred years, repeatedly performed by popular Ukrainian, Russian and other musicians. Law enforcement authorities now view "Chervona Kalyna” as a battle song and an attribute of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), whose activities have been recognized as extremist and banned in Russia. Several versions of this song are known, and the most popular of them contain no statements that can be interpreted as incitement of hatred or evidence of propaganda of the OUN’s activities.
In Kemerovo, Olga Ovsepyan was fined one and a half thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO. According to the court ruling, two or three years ago, the Kemerovo resident installed an image with the caption “The Sun Is with Us” as her avatar. According to the police and the court, the image contained symbols confusingly similar to Nazi ones. Most likely, the image was that of the Kolovrat. The Kolovrat is a popular Slavic neo-pagan symbol widely used in numerous variations, and it differs significantly from the Nazi swastika. Furthermore, in our opinion, the only incidents that merit sanctions are those in which Nazi symbols are used to promote Nazism. The court ruling contains nothing to indicate that Ovsepyan was engaged in propaganda of Nazism or violence, hatred and discrimination in general. We are inclined to consider the charges against her inappropriate.
Sanctions for Distribution of Extremist Materials
In December, Pyotr Prikhnyuk was fined 1,500 rubles under Article 20.29 CAO (mass distribution of extremist materials) in Aleksin of the Tula Region. The video “Let's Remind Crooks and Thieves about their Manifesto-2002” was found on his VKontakte page. This video circulated by Alexei Navalny's supporters was declared extremist in 2013 along with several materials by Russian nationalists. The video merely lists a number of United Russia's unfulfilled campaign promises from the party's draft manifesto of 2002 and calls for voting for any party other than United Russia. We view the ban against this video as unfounded and sanctions for its distribution as unlawful.
In Kemerovo, Roman Likhoded was fined one thousand rubles for posting on VKontakte the song “Kill the Cosmonauts” by the band Ensemble of Christ the Savior and the Crude Mother Earth. The song’s lyrics were recognized as extremist material in 2017. We believe that the song “Kill the Cosmonauts” was banned inappropriately – it is obviously satirical and intended to ridicule obscurantism and primitive religiosity. Its calls to punish cosmonauts for “climbing to the sky” cannot be taken seriously.
Sanctions for Calls for Separatism
In St. Petersburg, the prosecutor's office opened a case under Article 20.3.2 Part 2 CAO (public calls for actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation using the Internet) against rapper Miron Fyodorov (Oxxxymiron) for his song “Oida” released in September 2022. The prosecutor's office also filed a lawsuit to recognize the song as prohibited for distribution in Russia and to restrict access to it via 10 links, including through the streaming services VK Music, Yandex.Music and Sound. The prosecutors objected to the lines that contained the slogan “Ingria will be free” and to the chorus “Oh, yeah, confiscate our home, oh, yeah, move into it, oh, yeah, choke on it, but we’ll rebuild it.” The slogan mentioned by the rapper belongs to an informal St. Petersburg regionalist movement advocating greater autonomy for St. Petersburg and its region as a single cultural and economic space. This slogan, in and of itself, contains no explicit calls to separate the above-mentioned territories from Russia. In the context of the entire song as a whole, including the chorus, it reads more like an expression of confidence that a change in the country’s political regime is inevitable. In our opinion, the author did not cross the line of peaceful political criticism, therefore we consider the prosecutorial actions against him and his work inappropriate. It is also worth reminding that, in our opinion, sanctions are appropriate only against public calls for violent separatism but should not limit peaceful discussions about the territorial status of certain regions.
Prosecutions for Vandalism
In December, we recorded several sentences issued under Article 214 Part 2 CC (vandalism motivated by political or ideological hatred) and several new criminal cases opened under this article. We have doubts about the validity of imposing sanctions for vandalism motivated by political hatred, since, in most cases, such actions represent a form of political criticism. The manifestation of political hostility, in and of itself, is not criminalized. We believe that this motive is appropriate as an aggravating circumstance only in the articles on crimes that pose significant public danger, specifically in the articles on the use of violence. In our opinion, unless the property damage is significant, cases under Article 214 CC should be terminated for insignificance. If a case cannot be dismissed but the damage is still relatively minor, we suggest introducing an article similar to Article 7.17 CAO that penalizes destruction or damage of other people's property or amending Article 7.17 to include vandalism that did not cause major damage. Terminating a criminal prosecution with the imposition of a judicial fine might be a compromise option.
In early July, in Puschino, near Moscow, a magistrate sentenced Vasily Koretsky to one and a half years of restriction of freedom because in March, motivated by pacifism, he doused a memorial sign to veterans of local wars with red paint.
In mid-August, Oleg Tolmachyov, who placed on walls four slogans critical of Vladimir Putin, was sentenced to a year of restriction of freedom.
On the same day, Pavel Kambolin was sentenced to 10 months of restriction of freedom in Blagoveshchensk of the Amur Region for anti-war graffiti he painted on five objects in the city in March. It should also be noted that, when Kambolin was caught red-handed painting another graffiti, he was also brought to court with charges under Article 20.3.3 Part 1, Article 20.3 Part 1 (public display of prohibited symbols) and Article 19.3 CAO (disobeying lawful demands of a police officer) – he spent a total of 28 days under arrest and was fined 300 thousand rubles.
Dmitry Stepanchenko was sentenced in mid-September to restriction of freedom for the term slightly exceeding one year under Article 214 Part 2 CC for similar actions committed in Feodosia.
Another verdict was issued in December in Astrakhan. A local resident, presumably Marcel Nabiullin, was sentenced to two years of restriction of freedom for writing anti-war slogans with a marker on an advertising banner, two buildings and two cultural monuments of regional importance in the historical city center (the memorial stones in the Heydar Aliyev Square).
In December, a case initiated back in October in Vsevolozhsk, Leningrad Region, against Alexander Kudryashov was requalified under Article 214 Part 2 CC. In protest against the mobilization, he painted graffiti that consisted of the letter “Z,” an equal sign and a swastika on a kilometer sign and an anti-aircraft gun pedestal that formed part of the Siege of Leningrad Memorial. Initially, the case was opened under paragraph “b” of Article 243.4 Part 2 CC (damaging a memorial to those killed in the Great Patriotic War). Once his case was reclassified, Kudryashov’s measure of restraint has been changed from detention to a ban on certain actions.
A new criminal case was opened under Article 214 Part 2 CC in Aleksin of the Tula Region. The court arrested an individual, suspected of painting four slogans on a city administration building and a military registration and enlistment office, as well as setting fire to some “patriotic banners.”
Another case was opened in Chita against 19-year-old Alexander Snezhkov and 16-year-old Lyubov Lizunova. In addition to vandalism motivated by political hatred, the anarchists were charged with publicly calling for terrorism (Article 205.2 Part 2 CC) and extremism (Article 280 Part 2 CC) on the Internet. The vandalism case was triggered by the “Death to the Regime” graffiti painted on a garage in late October. As for the charges under Articles 205.2 and 280 CC, they are associated with posts on the “Shugan-25” and 75ZLO Telegram channels administered by Snezhkov and Lizunova. According to investigators, a number of posts approved the arson of military registration and enlistment offices and rail sabotage, allegedly committed by the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists (Boevaya Organizatsiya Anarkho-Kommunistov, BOAK). In principle, such posts might indeed merit sanctions.
Prosecutions for “Rehabilitating Nazism”
In late November, unidentified persons in Ulan-Ude sprayed black paint on photographs of border guards who took part in the conflict on Damansky Island in 1969. The portraits accompanied by the veterans’ personal stories are located on special stands on the Border Guards Memorial Square. Law enforcement agencies opened a criminal case under Article 354.1 Part 3 CC (desecration of the symbols of Russian military glory and insulting the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland), and suspicion fell on students of two nearby schools. Traces of saliva were found at the scene, and therefore the investigation decided to take buccal epithelium samples from all male students for DNA analysis. The director of one of the schools contacted parents asking for their consent and causing a mixed reaction among them.
We view this incident as a classic case of vandalism punishable under Article 214 CC. Article 354.1 CC, which penalizes desecration of symbols of military glory, provides for a more severe punishment, which we consider disproportionate to the degree of public danger represented by the act. Additionally, Russian legislation provides no list of symbols of military glory, so the grounds, on which certain objects should be classified as such, are not clear. In this case, the insult to the memory of border guards definitely took place, but we believe that an insult, including an insult to memory, should entail a civil lawsuit rather than criminal prosecution. The already mentioned General Comment No. 34 of the UN Human Rights Committee addresses this specific issue. The methods chosen by the investigation also seem out of proportion to the event and could cause unnecessary stress for adolescents and their parents – especially since criminal liability under Article 354.1 CC begins at the age of 16, so if the involvement of schoolchildren in the incident is confirmed, the criminal case will probably have to be discontinued altogether.
In Anapa, a case was initiated in December, under Article 354.1 Part 4 CC (desecration of the symbols of military glory of Russia by a group of persons using the Internet). It was based on a video published on the Internet and featuring two teenagers in the 70th Anniversary of the Victory Park located in the village of Anapskaya, who, in obscene language, discussed the possibility of urinating on the Eternal Flame, and then one of them used the Eternal Flame to light her cigarette. It was soon established that the girls were 15 and 17 years old (thus, one of them could not be prosecuted). Both parents were fined under Article 5.35 CAO (improper fulfillment of parental responsibilities for raising a minor). We believe that the girls' disorderly conduct deserves condemnation, but we must reiterate that criminal prosecution is justified only for crimes that pose a significant social danger.
A verdict in another similar case came out in December. The Moscow Regional Court issued a two-year suspended sentence under Article 354.1 Part 4 CC to Vadim Kotov, a resident of Krasnogorsk, for publishing a video showing him lighting a cigarette from the Eternal Flame. Kotov shot the video back in 2011 and posted it on his personal VKontakte page in 2021. It is not clear why the investigation and the court decided that this publication represented significant public danger.
Back in November, a case against Igor Orlovsky was initiated in Krasnoyarsk under paragraph “c” of Article 354.1 Part 2 CC (dissemination of deliberately false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War). The case was based on a comment left by Orlovsky on his VKontakte page in March 2022, in which he claimed that Stalin took part in unleashing the Second World War and was “just as bad of an aggressor as Hitler.” We believe that a discussion on historical topics, even if it contains an alternative or incorrect interpretation of facts and harsh value judgments, should not become a reason for criminal prosecution. We add that another case against Orlovsky, under Article 280 Part 2 CC and Article 205.2 Part 2 CC, is already in court. We cannot classify these charges against the Krasnoyarsk citizen as inappropriate, since Orlovsky's comments did contain calls for violence, but the court has to examine carefully the extent of his actions’ public danger.
In Anadyr, Dmitry Aritkulov faces charges under Article 354.1 Part 4 and Article 280 Part 2 CC and has been taken into custody. The case under Article 354.1 CC was opened because, according to the investigation, Aritkulov published a link in a public chat to a video and a comment that contained statements desecrating the dead soldiers’ names and expressing clear disrespect for society and the day of military glory associated with the defense of the Fatherland. In our opinion, expressing a negative attitude towards the days of Russia's military glory (whether Victory Day or another holiday), in and of itself, poses no public danger and should not become a reason for criminal prosecution unless accompanied by incitement to violence, hatred or discrimination. As for insulting the memory of unspecified defenders of the Fatherland, the criminalization of acts defined in such an abstract way fails to meet international legal human rights standards. In case of an attack against the reputation of specific veterans, the dispute can be resolved through civil proceedings. We cannot unequivocally characterize the charge under Article 280 CC as inappropriate in this case either, since it is based on a posted comment calling for violence; however, the court should carefully consider the extent of public danger Aritkulov's actions present.
In late December, the Novosibirsk Regional Court fined Viktor Bondarev 100 thousand rubles, finding him guilty under Article 128.1 CC (disseminating deliberately false information discrediting the honor and dignity of another person on the internet) and Article 354.1 Part 4 CC (humiliation of honor and dignity of a World War II veteran committed online) and ordered him to pay the moral damage compensation to the victims. The criminal prosecution was based on Bondarev’s VKontakte posts published in 2021. The posts accused Bondarev’s stepfather, war veteran Vitaly Simonov, of abusing Bondarev’s mother, locking her up in a nursing home, and illegally obtaining an apartment from the state. We believe that the qualification of the defendant’s actions under Article 354.1 Part 4 CC is incorrect and excessive. If Bondarev disseminated unreliable personal information about the veteran, it would have been enough to charge him with libel. We also believe that such charges should be addressed in civil rather than criminal proceedings – Simonov's relatives could have filed a civil lawsuit for protection of honor and dignity.
Persecution of Opposition Activists
In December, the Kirovsky District Court in Irkutsk, issued a one-year suspended sentence to the former coordinator of Navalny's local headquarters, Zakhar Sarapulov, for participating in NGOs that encourage citizens to refuse their civic duties or commit other illegal acts (Article 239 Part 3 CC). In Arkhangelsk, the case of Yelizaveta Bychkova and Yegor Butakov charged under the same article went to court. All three were previously charged with creating an extremist community (Article 282.1 Part 1 CC) or participating in it (Article 282.1 Part 2 CC). The Investigative Committee qualifies under this article the activities carried out by Navalny’s structures before they were banned as extremist organizations in the summer of 2021 (we consider this ban inappropriate). Altogether, about two dozen activists who previously participated in Navalny’s structures have become defendants in the cases under Articles 282.1 and 239 CC; their leaders also face the charges of money laundering (paragraph “b” of Article 174 Part 4 CC) and financing of extremism (Article 282.3 Part 1 CC).
The Second Western District Military Court found Daria Polyudova, the founder of the Left Resistance (Levoe soprotivlenie) movement, guilty under Article 282.1 Part 1 and Article 205.2 Part 2 CC, and Kirill Kotov, a member of the Left Resistance – under Article 282.1 Part 2 CC. The court sentenced Polyudova, who is currently serving a six-year sentence for justifying terrorism, to nine years in a penal colony, thus adding three years to her previous term. Kotov received a three-year suspended sentence. We regard the charges against Polyudova under Article 205.2 Part 2 CC as inappropriate. They were based on her publications about people prosecuted for their involvement in the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir banned in Russia as a terrorist organization. In one of her publications, Polyudova directly expressed her disagreement with the Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology, while doubting the validity of prosecuting alleged supporters of the party under anti-terrorist legislation does not mean that the author justifies such activities. As for the charges of involvement in the activities of the Left Resistance as an extremist community, they are not entirely unfounded, since the movement's page on VKontakte published calls for the violent overthrow of power. Polyudova herself made such statements and then faced separate charges for them under Article 205.2 Part 2 CC. However, we have serious doubts about the proportionality of the punishment imposed on her, since the group created by Polyudova was small, enjoyed little popularity and, as far as we know, was not preparing for any real violent activity. Therefore, it posed no significant public danger. In our opinion, Polyudova's propaganda activities provided no grounds for sentencing her to imprisonment, especially to such a long prison term.
In December, the St. Petersburg City Court recognized the inter-regional movement Vesna as an extremist organization. According to the prosecutorial report, the claims against Vesna were as follows: the movement's activities were aimed at undermining public security and the foundations of Russia's constitutional order; Vesna was creating the “conditions for destabilizing the social and socio-political situation in the country;” and it was forming “public opinion on the need for regime change in the Russian Federation,” including through “holding mass public events in violation of the existing law and using violence against representatives of law enforcement agencies who enforce law and order.” The department claimed that Vesna members commit extremist crimes and offenses, as well as “other unlawful acts that lead to violation of the rights and freedoms of citizens causing harm to the individual, society and the state.” It is worth noting that forming public opinion about the need for a regime change in the country is not illegal unless it is associated with calls for violence. We are not aware of any calls for violence by Vesna or any criminal cases initiated under Article 280 CC against individual representatives of the movement. Individual members of the Vesna movement are being prosecuted under Article 239 Part 3 CC, Article 212 Part 1.1 CC (inducement to organize mass riots), as well as Article 207 Part 2 CC (knowingly false report of an act of terrorism committed against objects of social infrastructure). However, the state does not classify actions covered under these articles of the Criminal Code as crimes of extremism. Vesna members called for the use of graffiti as a means of political protest, but qualifying protest graffiti as vandalism motivated by political hostility (that is, an extremist crime) is, in our opinion, problematic. Thus, we are not convinced by the arguments provided by the prosecutor's office in support of its demand to ban the movement.
Prosecution for Involvement in the “Columbine Movement”
In December, the case of a high school student from Stary Oskol was brought to court in the Belgorod Region. He was charged with participating in the activities of a terrorist organization (Article 205.5 Part 2 CC) and preparations to commit a terrorist act (paragraph “b” of Article 30 Part 1 and Article 205 Part 3 CC). According to investigators, the teenager became interested in the ideology of the Columbine movement in September 2021 and planned an attack against his school a year later. His plans fell through since other students reported the teenager's intentions to the head teacher. If the defendant really planned the murder, then his actions certainly posed a great threat. However, we believe that prosecuting him under Article 205.5 Part 2 of CC is inappropriate, since he evidently acted independently and not as a member of any organization. “Columbine” is a stable term used in Russia to refer to mass murders in educational institutions. It is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization, but there is no reason to believe that supporters of school killings form a single organization. It is also worth noting that the actions of school shooters usually have no political component. The federal law “On Counteracting Terrorism” defines terrorism specifically as “the ideology of violence and the practice of influencing decision-making by public authorities,” which “involves terrorizing the population and/or other forms of illegal violence.” We also believe that the ban against Columbine as a terrorist organization complicates preventive work with students at risk.
Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers
In late November, the Fifth Cassation Court of General Jurisdiction reviewed a complaint against the sentence issued to Ilgar Aliev. In 2018, he was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment under Parts 1 and 1.1 of Article 282.2 CC (organizing the activities of an extremist organization and recruiting others into it) for his involvement in the religious association Nurcular. The Cassation Court removed the charge against Aliev under Part 1.1 and reduced his sentence by two years. When the defendant was released, he found out that he had lost his Russian citizenship – apparently, based on the norm, in force since 2017, according to which a court verdict under a number of anti-extremist and anti-terrorist articles (including under Article 282.2 CC), which has entered into legal force, can serve as a basis for overturning the decision to grant citizenship. According to available information, Aliev is awaiting deportation to Azerbaijan.
We consider the ban against Nurcular inappropriate. The organization was recognized as extremist in 2008 based on a series of unreasonable bans against the books of moderate Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi for promoting the superiority of Islam over other religions. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that by banning these books Russian courts had violated Article 10 of the European Convention, which guarantees freedom of expression. We also believe that Russian Muslims who study Nursi's heritage do not constitute a single organization.
It became known in late December that the Second Western District Military Court sentenced an inmate of a penal colony in the Pskov Region to two years and five months behind bars under Article 205.2 Part 1 CC (public justification of terrorism) for forming among other prisoners a positive attitude towards the activities of the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The Southern District Military Court sentenced Crimean Tatar activist Ernes Ametov to 11 years of imprisonment under Article 205.5 Part 2 CC (participating in the activities of a terrorist organization), as well as Article 278 CC with the use of Article 30 Part 1 CC (preparing for a violent seizure of power). Notably, the public prosecutor asked the court to impose a significantly more severe sentence – 18 years and 6 months behind bars with the first five years to be served in prison. Ametov was arrested back in 2017, but in 2020, the court acquitted him (in contrast to seven other Crimean Tatars charged in the same case). However, in early 2022, the Military Court of Appeal overturned his acquittal and sent the case back for a new trial.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization even though its members have never been implicated in terrorist attacks. We view the charges against Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters under the “terrorist” articles of the Criminal Code, made solely on the basis of party activities (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) as inappropriate.
In December, prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses continued on the charges of involvement in the activities of local religious organizations banned as extremist. We believe that the decision to ban them had no legal grounds and consider it a manifestation of religious discrimination. It is worth reminding that the ECHR ruled on the Jehovah's Witnesses’ complaint in June. The decision recognized that the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses materials and organizations and sanctions against believers violated the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and demanded the end to the criminal cases under Article 282.2 CC against Jehovah's Witnesses and the release of imprisoned believers.
We received information in December about two new criminal cases opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Crimea, charges under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC were brought against Dmitry Naukhatsky and Alexander Voronchikhin. The first is known to have been placed under house arrest. In Izhevsk, a case under the same article was opened against Alexander Votyakov (he was also placed under house arrest) and Yevgeny Stefanidin.
In December, courts in different regions passed eight sentences against 20 believers:
- The Armiansk City Court in the Republic of Crimea sentenced Alexander Dubovenko and Alexander Litvinyuk to six years of imprisonment under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC.
- The Metallurgichesky District Court of Chelyabinsk issued a two-year suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC (participating in the activities of an extremist organization) against Vadim Gizatulin.
- The Birobidzhansky District Court of the Jewish Autonomous Region found Valery Kriger and Sergei Shulyarenko guilty under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC and Article 282.3 Part 1 CC (financing of extremist activities). Both were sentenced by the court to seven years of imprisonment. Alam Aliev was sentenced to six and a half years in a penal colony under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC and Dmitry Zagulin – to three years in a penal colony under Article 282.3 Part 1 CC.
- The Blagoveshchensk City Court issued guilty verdicts to five Jehovah's Witnesses. Sergei Kardakov is facing six years and four months of imprisonment under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC, Anton Olshevsky, Adam Svarichevsky and Sergei Yermilov – six years and three months each on the same charges. The court sentenced Sergei Afanasyev to six and a half years in a penal colony, finding him additionally guilty under Article 282.3 Part 1 CC.
- The verdict of the Alatyrsky District Court of Chuvashia sentenced Mikhail Ermakov and Andrei Martynov to six years in a penal colony each under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC. Nina Martynova and Zoya Pavlova were fined 350,000 rubles under Parts 1.1 and 2 of the same article.
- The Vyazemsky District Court of the Khabarovsk Territory issued a suspended sentence of two years and five months to Sergei Kuznetsov under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC.
- The Zeya District Court of the Amur Region sentenced Leonid Druzhinin and Yevgeny Bitusov to six and a half years each in a penal colony under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC.
- The Oktyabrsky District Court of Krasnoyarsk sentenced Alexander Filatov to six years of imprisonment on a similar charge.
Three guilty verdicts were overturned in December by higher courts. The Fifth Cassation Court of General Jurisdiction sent the case of Yelena Menchikova from Cherkessk, who had previously received a suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Parts 1.1 and 2 CC in 2021, for a new trial. The Amur Regional Court returned to the court of first instance the case of Vladimir Bukin, Valery Slashchev, Mikhail Burkov and Sergei Yuferov from Tynda, who received real terms of imprisonment in October 2022 under Parts 1 and 1.1 of Article 282.2 CC. The Krasnoyarsk Regional Court returned to the prosecutor the case of Alexander Kabanov who is facing a suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC,
At the same time, the Supreme Court of Russia in December overturned the acquittal of Konstantin Bazhenov, his wife Snezhana Bazhenova and Vera Zolotova from Kamchatka. The case of believers charged under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC was forwarded to the appellate instance for a new trial.
Prosecution for “Insulting the Feelings of Believers”
In Armavir, the city court in December sentenced gaming blogger Sergei Orlov who streamed the game PUBG. He was found guilty of insulting the religious feelings of believers (Article 148 Part 1 CC) and also guilty under Article 228 Part 1 CC (illegal acquisition and storage of drugs without the purpose of sale). Earlier, Orlov had received a suspended sentence for theft, and now, based on the totality of his verdicts, the court sentenced him to two years in prison.
The prosecution against Orlov under Article 148 CC was based on certain statements he made about Islam. We had no opportunity to review these statements, but in general, SOVA Center opposes the introduction of the concept of “insulting the feelings of believers” into the Criminal Code. This vague concept does not and cannot have a clear legal meaning. If Orlov's statements contained signs of incitement to hatred against Muslims, propaganda of violence or discrimination, he should have been brought to justice under Article 20.3.1 CAO.