Misuse of Anti-Extremism in January 2023

The following is our review of the primary and most representative events in the misuse of Russia's anti-extremist legislation in January 2023.


In late January, the parliament of the Chechen Republic submitted to the State Duma two bills related to anti-extremist legal regulation. The first bill seeks to expand the list of texts of traditional religions that cannot be recognized as extremist. Now, the Bible, the Quran, the Tanakh, and the Kangyur cannot be banned — both their content and quotes from them. Chechen parliamentarians propose to add “other sacred Christian scriptures” and the works of “four Islamic canonical schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali madhhabs)” to this list. Under their proposal, the law should indicate that both the primary sources of sacred texts and their translations into the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation cannot be recognized as extremist.

This bill represents yet another attempt to solve a set of problems that have developed around the Russian practice of banning religious texts, including ancient and authoritative ones, such as Islamic hadiths. However, it will not solve all the problems. As long as the law on counteracting extremist activity contains a formula that includes “propaganda of the superiority of one’s own religion” (that is, virtually any religious sermon) under the definition of extremist activity, absurd prohibitions will be enacted, and prosecutions against believers for distributing illegally banned literature will continue. Recognizing materials as extremist also presents a more general problem — this mechanism is generally not well thought out and ineffective. We believe that the problem lies not with the materials per se, but, primarily, with their use to promote violence, hatred, or discrimination. In addition, the fact that the bill provides protection only for some Islamic and Christian books, in our opinion, indicates a selective and discriminatory approach concerning other faiths.

The second bill proposed by the Chechen parliament concerns the procedure for recognizing materials as extremist, which is regulated by the Code of Administrative Judicial Procedure. The proposal changes the jurisdiction of the relevant cases transferring them up to the courts of the subjects of the federation (now the district courts are responsible for recognizing materials as extremist). Next, the bill’s authors propose to explicitly state in the code that the court should bring in copyright holders, authors and translators of works in question, and — when considering a possible ban of materials of “religious content” — also representatives of centralized religious organizations and experts on the relevant religion. We believe that such changes may improve the quality of court cases on the prohibition of materials. It should be noted, however, that the opinion of representatives of centralized religious organizations regarding materials of religious movements not associated with these organizations should hardly be considered relevant.

The Practice of the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued several judgments in January addressing anti-extremist law enforcement in Russia. Recall that Russia does not comply with the ECHR decisions adopted after March 15, 2022, but the court itself believes that Russia must comply with all decisions relating to events that occurred before September 16, 2022.

The first resolution of interest to us addresses the complaint of OOO Mediafocus, the publisher of Ezhednevny Zhurnal. The publication’s website was blocked in 2014, and in 2020, in the judgment in the case of Flavus and Others v. Russia, the ECHR indicated that this blocking constituted arbitrary and excessive interference with the freedom of expression of the publishers. Moreover, the Strasbourg Court emphasized that Russian law did not provide them with adequate protection against arbitrary interference, and that the blocking of this and other sites considered in the complaint (Kasparov.ru, Grani.ru) in its entirety (rather than individual offending pages) was unreasonable, pursued no legitimate aim and was not necessary in a democratic society. Faced with blocking, Ezhednevny Zhurnal’s publishers opened a new website at a different address and did not transfer the old content to it. However, this site was also blocked in 2017 based on the same request of the Prosecutor General's Office as the previous one. Attempts to challenge the new blocking in the Russian courts proved unsuccessful; the Tagansky District Court of Moscow stated that the law did not require that the Prosecutor General's Office indicate all the URLs of materials subject to blocking and refused to review the contents of the new site. The Moscow City Court added that since the new site has the same name and owners as the old one, it is considered a mirror of the original. Subsequently, the publishers filed another complaint with the ECHR reviewed in January. The ECHR added the following to its prior conclusions on the case of Flavus and Others v. Russia: that Russian legislation at the time of blocking provided no definition of the term “mirror;” and that there was neither a procedure for blocking mirrors nor any criteria for classifying sites as mirrors. Thus, according to the ECHR, the Russian courts’ conclusion that the new website was subject to restrictions solely on the basis that it shared a similar name and the same owner with the previously blocked website had no clear and foreseeable legal basis. Moreover, as the Strasbourg Court emphasized, by refusing to examine the new site, the Russian courts did not take into account the fact that its content was different. Based on this, the ECHR ruled that the blocking was not prescribed by law and violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech.

Another ruling was issued following the complaint of Falun Gong followers Mikhail Sinitsyn and Sergei Alekhin that four publications of this spiritual movement had been banned as extremist materials. In 2011, a court in Krasnodar banned Zhuan Falun (a treatise by the movement’s founder), a report on verifying the allegations of organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China, as well as the brochures Falun Dafa in the World and Human Rights Torch Relay around the World. The ECHR emphasized that the courts never analyzed the form, content and context of specific fragments of the materials, which allegedly contained signs of inciting religious hatred and enmity, but instead uncritically reproduced the general points of the expert opinion. The ECHR also reiterated that it was the responsibility of the court, and not the experts, to provide a legal assessment of the statements. As the ECHR noted, the courts failed to assess the necessity of banning the publications based on their character, context and possible harmful effect on the applicants’ rights. Thus, the ECHR concluded that the case had violated the rights of applicants guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention in the light of Article 9 on freedom of religion.

The third case of interest to us pertained to seven issues of the Zvezda Selennoy magazine, recognized as extremist materials by the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court in 2012, and to the ban on an Allya-Ayat (Elle-Ayat) religious group in Novosibirsk. It was prohibited by the regional court in 2013 for carrying out extremist activities. The Supreme Court of Russia overturned the decision to recognize it as extremist but upheld the ban against it for inciting citizens to refuse medical care. Considering the validity of banning the journals, the ECHR again emphasized that the Russian court based its decision entirely on expert opinions and did not analyze the texts or indicate which specific statements in them encouraged intolerance and proclaimed the superiority of Allya-Ayat followers. The Russian courts also never evaluated the need for a ban and its impact on the applicants' rights. Thus, according to the ECHR, in this case, Russia also violated Article 10 of the Convention interpreted in the light of Article 9. As for the ban imposed on the religious group in Novosibirsk, according to the ECHR, the fundamental question in the case was whether Allya-Ayat adherents refused medical intervention freely or under pressure. Since no evidence of pressure was ever established, the ECHR decided that there was no urgent public need to ban the religious group. Therefore, this prohibition violated Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11, which protects freedom of assembly and association.

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 sanctions under the relevant articles (Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) for the first violation and Article 280.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (CC) for repeated violations) for statements that contain no direct calls for violence as inappropriate.

In January, Russian courts issued at least three sentences under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC. The Solombalsky District Court of Arkhangelsk imposed a fine of 130,000 rubles on activist Yulia Chapurina, who previously participated in an environmental protest at the Shiyes railway station. In 2022, she was fined a total of 75 thousand rubles based on two reports filed against her under Article 20.3.3 CAO: one for a solitary picket advocating peace to “all of us” and the other one for the public installation of a cross in memory of those killed in Mariupol.

The Central District Court of Orenburg fined Konstantin Pchelintsev 100 thousand rubles under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC. The investigation asserted, and the court agreed, that in July 2022, Pchelintsev removed stickers with the letter Z from a door in a public place; one sticker also contained the slogan “We don’t abandon our own!” In addition, according to the investigation, the Orenburg resident posted videos that “contained a negative attitude towards the special military operation” on VKontakte and YouTube. Earlier, Pchelintsev had been fined 35 thousand rubles under Article 20.3.3 Part 1 CAO — also for removing a sticker with the letter “Z.”

The third verdict was issued in late January by the Ivanovsky District Court of the Amur Region. The court found activist Vladislav Nikitenko from Blagoveshchensk guilty not only under Article 280.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code but also under Article 297 Parts 1 and 2 CC (contempt of court). The court sentenced him to three years of incarceration. The case against the activist under Article 280.3 CC was initiated in May 2022 based on over ten Facebook posts by Nikitenko, which the investigation interpreted as discrediting the use of the armed forces. Earlier, in March 2022, the activist was fined 45,000 rubles under Article 20.3.3 Part 1 CAO.

In January, we also recorded several new criminal cases initiated under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC. In Yefremov, the Tula Region, such a case was initiated against Alexei Moskalyov based on his posts on social networks.

In the Kostroma region, a similar case was opened against Yan Kulikov, a bookstore owner from Soligalich, for his post against mobilization and for “peace with the neighbors.” Prior to that, he had faced administrative responsibility several times, including under Article 20.3.3 Part 2 CAO (discrediting the use of the army, accompanied by calls for public events without a permit) for sharing two anti-mobilization protest announcements on VKontakte. A criminal case against Kulikov on charges of disseminating knowingly false information about the use of armed forces (Article 207.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) is also under investigation. Note that Kulikov was also punished in 2022 under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO (public demonstration of Nazi symbols) — on March 9, the Chukhlomsky District Court fined him 1,500 rubles for his VKontakte post containing a swastika. The post reportedly included a video comparing the letter “Z” to the swastika.

In Vladikavkaz, the case under Article 280.3 CC was initiated against a local woman who made spoke against mobilization on VKontakte and Telegram.

Prosecutions for Anti-Government Speech

In late January, the Central District Court of Tyumen sentenced Kirill Martyushev to three years in a minimum-security colony with a two-year ban on administering websites, having found him guilty under Article 280 Part 2 CC (public calls for extremist activity made on the Internet). The charges were related to a video message posted by Martyushev on Telegram on February 24, 2022. On that day, he was detained under Article 20.2 Part 5 CAO (participation in a public event held without a permit). Once the police filed a report against him, he left the precinct and recorded a video for his mother, which he also posted on the #NETVOINE channel. Reportedly, in this video, Martyushev expressed his surprise at the political passivity of “those people,” “punching bags,” who look for “malicious” violators at a peaceful anti-war rally. He also added that in his opinion “such people should be immediately sent to the electric chair.” According to investigators, the video contained a public call for violent actions against police officers. If the description of the video provided above is accurate, then we interpret Martyushev's statement as an emotional reaction to the actions of law enforcement officers he viewed as unlawful, in the context of his support for peace with respect to the special operation in Ukraine. His statement had a relatively narrow audience (40 users had read the post by the time the case was opened) and posed no real threat to law enforcement officers. Therefore, we are inclined to believe that Martyushev's act did not represent a sufficient public danger to merit criminal prosecution. More on the guiding principles for evaluating statements in cases under Article 280 CC can be found here.

Sanctions for Inciting Hatred

In January, we learned that, back in October 2022, the Central District Court of Kemerovo sentenced Vladimir Drugov to 90 hours of community service under Article 20.3.1 CAO (inciting hatred or enmity, as well as humiliating human dignity). The case was based on a comment he left in September 2021 on the “Typical Kemerovo” VKontakte public page under the news “Negotiations with the RFU in Kemerovo on the construction of a football arena.” The comment contained obscene homophobic insults against members of the United Russia party. We believe that Drugov was punished under Article 20.3.1 CAO inappropriately. In our opinion, representatives of political parties do not form social groups that need special protection from incitement to hatred (we also believe that the vague concept of “social group” should be excluded from anti-extremist legislation altogether). Notably, the Supreme Court of Russia pointed out in 2011 that media criticism of officials (professional politicians) should not, in and of itself, be viewed as an act aimed at humiliating their dignity, since the limits of permissible criticism are wider for officials than for private individuals. From our point of view, this argument applies not only to mass media but also to statements made by ordinary citizens. It should also be emphasized that Drugov's emotional comment contained no calls for violence.

A report under Article 20.3.1 CAO was filed against sociologist Iskander Yasaveev from Kazan (recognized as a foreign agent) in late January. The case was based on his column “The Hood Way or the Soviet Way: Why is Russia at War?” (Po-patsanski ili po-sovetski: pochemu Rossiya voyuyet), published by Idel.Realii in June 2022. The expert opinion, submitted by a linguist involved in the case, claimed that Yasaveev’s text contained signs of “incitement to violent actions against a social group formed on the basis of belonging to a particular ethnicity,” “humiliation of human dignity on the basis of social (professional) affiliation” and “incitement of enmity or hatred towards a group of individuals identified by a social characteristic.” We found no such signs in Yasaveev's article. The author only argued that parallels between the actions of the Russian leadership and those of street gang members in the USSR were misleading — the current state of affairs in the country and the hostilities in Ukraine indicated that the Russian authorities shared the typical attitudes of the so-called “Soviet man” (Homo Soveticus) — that the country is in the “ring of enemies,” and that it was permissible to sacrifice people for the sake of the state’s greatness. According to Yasaveev, getting rid of the “Soviet man,” who is “aggressive and helplessly patient, submissive and cunning, constantly building hierarchies,” would take not only a regime change but also decades of democratization and educational work. In our opinion, neither criticism of the authorities, nor social criticism, including disapproval of citizens’ characteristic attitudes and views, cannot be used as the grounds for prosecuting the critic for inciting hatred, enmity, and humiliation of dignity. We also believe that the authorities do not form a vulnerable social group in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred. It is completely unclear which statements by Yasaveev were interpreted by linguistics experts as inciting violence based on belonging to an ethnic and social group.

Sanctions for Displaying Banned Symbols

In January, at least two people were punished under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO (public demonstration of the symbols of an extremist organization) in connection with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine!”

The Sudak City Court of Crimea fined Anna Krasnovskaya two thousand rubles under this article. She and her friends Natalya Morozova and Yevgenia Vylegzhanina were also fined under Article 20.3.3 Part 1 CAO in amounts ranging from 30 to 35 thousand rubles. The case against the Crimean women was based on a video in which Krasnovskaya writes “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” on a car trunk, while Vylegzhanina, off-screen, whispers “ZSU, ZSU” (that is, Zbroini syly Ukrainy, the Armed Forces of Ukraine), and Morozova merely smiles. The video attracted attention thanks to patriotic bloggers, who not only succeeded in bringing the women to administrative responsibility and forcing them to publicly apologize but also promised to get one of them fired from her work in a public institution and threatened another one with inspection on her business.

The Central District Court of Sochi sanctioned Victoria Gomzyakova, who shouted the phrase “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” on New Year's Eve. First, Gomzyakova was placed under arrest for 10 days under Article 19.3 CAO (disobeying the lawful demand of a police officer), and then for another two days under Article 20.3 Part 1 CAO. The court decided that the slogan she had uttered was the “established greeting attribute” of Ukrainian organizations UNA–UNSO and the Right Sector, banned in Russia.

It is worth reminding here that Article 20.3 CAO penalizes displaying the symbols or attributes of banned organizations, not publishing their slogans, and the basis, on which the courts classify slogans as paraphernalia, is unclear. We also would like to note that 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 ubiquitous in Ukraine and, since 2018, it has become an official greeting in the Ukrainian army and police.

Sanctions for Distribution of Extremist Materials

In January, we recorded several cases filed under Article 20.29 CAO (mass distribution of extremist materials) including for the distribution of the banned video “Let's Remind Crooks and Thieves about their Manifesto-2002.” 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.

Specifically, the Predgorny District Court of Stavropol Krai first fined Anton Yermilov, on whose VKontakte page this video was found, one thousand rubles in September 2022 and then tried him again on December 16, this time imposing a fine of three thousand rubles.

In January, the Morkinsky District Court of the Republic of Mari El fined Andrei Korotkov 1,000 rubles. The video has been present on his VKontakte page since December 2012 accompanied by the call to distribute it.

Sanctions for Calls for Separatism

On January 11, the Oktyabrsky District Court of St. Petersburg fined rapper Miron Fyodorov (Oxxxymiron) 70 thousand rubles 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). Law enforcement agencies and the court saw a violation of the law in the lines of the song “Oida," which contained the slogan “Ingria will be free” and 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. The slogan, in and of itself, contains no explicit calls to separate the above-mentioned territories from Russia. In the context of the entire song, 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 under this article 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 January, we recorded several sentences issued under Article 214 Part 2 CC (vandalism motivated by political or ideological hatred). 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 only appropriate as an aggravating circumstance 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.

One such sentence was issued by a magistrate at court precinct No. 143 in Moscow back in June 2022, who sentenced Sergei Zvyagin and Alexei Vedeneev to eight months of restriction of freedom for painting an anti-war graffiti on a building that belonged to the Moscow United Energy Company (presumably the transformer booth) under the influence of alcohol.

Another similar verdict was delivered in early December 2022 by a magistrate at court precinct No. 164 of the Primorsky District of St. Petersburg, who sentenced Sergei Vasilyev to a year of restriction of freedom. On May 2, 2022, Vasilyev, using a spray can of blue paint, left several pieces of graffiti (including “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes”) on playground structures, in an underpass, on the Naval Academy building facade and the garbage container next to it.

Persecution of Opposition Activists

The Lomonosovsky District Court of Arkhangelsk in mid-January found Yegor Butakov and Yelizaveta Bychkova, former employees of the Alexei Navalny headquarters in Arkhangelsk, guilty under Article 239 Part 3 CC (participation in a non-profit organization whose activities are associated with inciting citizens to refuse their civic duties or commit other illegal acts) and sentenced them to a year of restriction of freedom.

The prosecutor requested a one-year suspended sentence. The case was considered under a special procedure at the request of the defendants, who pleaded guilty and actively cooperated with the investigation. They 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).

Persecution against Religious Organizations and Believers

Hizb ut-Tahrir

In January, we recorded several sentences issued on charges of involvement in the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir. It has been 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 based on their party activities (holding meetings, reading literature, etc.) as inappropriate. In our opinion, the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir preaches the idea of creating a worldwide Islamic caliphate, in and of itself, does not provide the grounds for charging its followers with planning a violent seizure of power in Russia.

In December 2022, the Central District Military Court delivered a sentence under Article 205.5 Part 1 CC (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization) and Article 205.1 Part 1.1 (involving others in terrorist activities) against Ruslan Ilyasov from Kazan. The court accepted the investigation’s version, according to which Ilyasov had been recruiting local Muslims to participate in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 19 years of incarceration, the first five to be served in prison and the remaining term in a maximum-security penal colony.

The Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don issued two sentences in January. The court sentenced Alim Karimov, Seyran Murtaza, Erfan Osmanov, Jemil Gafarov and Servet Gaziev, defendants in the second Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case, to 13 years of imprisonment with the first two years to be served in prison, and the remainder in a maximum-security penal colony. All of them were found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 2 CC (participating in the activities of a terrorist organization) and Article 278 CC with Article 30 Part 1 CC (preparing for a violent seizure of power). Earlier, the investigation had broken the defendants into five-person groups, and the other four groups had already been sentenced to long prison terms.

The same court sentenced Crimean imam Raif Fevziev to 17 years behind bars with the first three years of his term to be served in prison. He was found guilty under Article 205.5 Part 1 CC and Article 278 CC with Article 30 Part 1 CC.

A new criminal case was opened in Crimea, presumably under Article 205.5 CC. Ekrem Krosh, Aider Asanov, Refat Seydametov, Osman Abdurazakov, Leman Zekeryaev and Khalil Azizov, residents of the Dzhankoy District, have been arrested.

Jehovah's Witnesses

In January, 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 stated 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. The ECHR demanded the end to the criminal cases under Article 282.2 CC against Jehovah's Witnesses and the release of imprisoned believers.

Courts in various regions passed four verdicts against four believers in January. Three of them were six-year suspended sentences under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code: the Kyzyl City Court sentenced Anatoly Senin, the Avtozavodsky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod — Gevorg Gevorkyan and the Kuznetsky District Court of Novokuznetsk — Sergei Sushilnikov. In addition, the Sovetsky District Court of Oryol issued a two-year suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC to a woman, whose name has not been confirmed.

For the third time, the Kamchatka Regional Court considered an appeal against the sentences of Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, his wife Snezhana Bazhenova and Vera Zolotova. Each of them received a two-year suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC. Most recently, they were fully acquitted after the intervention of the appellate instance, but the Supreme Court of Russia did not agree with this decision.

In addition, it was reported in January that, back in August 2022, the Rostov Regional Court imposed a more severe sentence on Arsen Avanesov — seven years in a minimum-security penal colony. Previously, he had been sentenced to six years in a penal colony under Article 282.2 Part 1 CC.

At the end of January, the Jehovah's Witnesses’ homes were searched in Biysk of Altai Krai. Presumably, the investigative actions took place as part of another case initiated under Article 282.2 CC.