Brief Report on Misuse of Anti-Extremist Legislation in January - August 2017
The following is our brief review of the most important legislative innovations and the law enforcement statistics in the period from January to August 2017. Our review is limited only to the part of the legislation and law enforcement practice that we see as leading to an excessive restriction of civil liberties.
A number of laws that continued the course on tightening the anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislative norms were signed in 2017.
They include the law allowing to revoke an earlier act on acquiring Russian citizenship for some of those convicted of extremist and terrorist crimes. Supposedly, the court verdict regarding such crimes proves that, at the time of obtaining citizenship, an applicant falsely claimed that s/he was committed to respect the Constitution and legislation. Meanwhile, it is quite obvious that criminal intent could have been formed at a later point. There is a reason to fear that the law will be used to revoke the citizenship of and subsequently deport some immigrants or residents of Crimea.
The new law on administrative supervision of persons released from places of confinement, introduced the changes to the provisions on such supervision, which affected the fate of those convicted under anti-extremist or anti-terrorist articles, among others. Now, offenders convicted of grave and especially grave crimes under a number of Criminal Code articles, including Articles 205.2 Part 2, 205.5, 278, 282 Part 2, 282.1, 282.2 (which, in our opinion, are often used in inappropriate sentencing) will remain under administrative supervision until their conviction is expunged.
New amendments to the law on the media introduce the ban on establishing media outlets for persons, who are deprived of their liberty, or have a criminal record for committing crimes using the media or the Internet or a criminal record "for committing crimes related to carrying out extremist activities." We see no compelling reasons for introducing such restrictions. The amendments also allow Roskomnadzor to refuse permission to distribute a foreign periodical or to revoke such a permission, if the publication fails to comply with the article of the law on misuse of the media or with anti-extremist legislation in general. The text of the law does not specify the methods to be used by Roskomnadzor in order to detect violations of anti-extremist legislation, giving rise to concerns regarding the possibility of Roskomnadzor issuing extra-judicial orders for inappropriate decisions that significantly restrict freedom of speech.
The state Internet censorship mechanisms have been strengthened as well. A new article, added to the Code of Administrative Offenses, stipulates a fine for Internet providers for failing to block pages on demand of Roskomnadzor. Meanwhile, in accordance with the law on prohibiting the use of anonymizers and VPN services for access to websites blocked in Russia, the federal Law on Information was augmented by the provision that requires, under the threat of sanctions, that the providers support these access restrictions.
Let us now turn to the sphere of enforcement of the anti-extremist legislation and review the cases of unjustified or insufficiently justified criminal prosecution reported to us in the first 8 months of 2017. These cases will be grouped according to the relevant articles of the Criminal Code.
We view seven verdicts against seven people under Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred) as inappropriate. For example, in Moscow, former director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature Natalya Sharina received a suspended sentence of 4 years with a four-year probation period for incitement to ethnic hatred and embezzlement because of paying the lawyer’s costs, after the Ukrainian nationalist literature had been found in the library. Roman Grishin from Kaluga received 320 hours of mandatory labor for inciting hatred of "the Russians, the Orthodox, citizens of the DNR and LNR [Donetsk and Luhansk Republics], as well as the leadership of Russia and the ROC." Grishin had shared on his social network page the video to the song “This is Rashism, Baby,” containing sharp criticism of Russian state propaganda and foreign policy in connection with its actions in Ukraine, which, according to the author, are characteristic of totalitarian regimes.
It is worth noting that, out of seven people inappropriately convicted under 282 of the Criminal Code, nobody was sentenced to a real prison term. Additional three verdicts against three people we view as questionable. In the period under review, three acquittals were issued under Article 282 of the Criminal Code with respect to four people. One of these verdicts was overturned, and the case – the notorious case against Ali Yakupov, the former Imam of the city mosque in Kurgan, charged with inciting hatred on the basis of belonging to a social group – was returned for a retrial. The imam was charged for leaving a comment under the material published on a social network, in which he allegedly spoke of “divine punishment” that was going to befall the Chinese Communists for not allowing the Muslim women in China to wear a hijab. The charges against two people under Article 282 of the Criminal Code were dropped during the investigation stage. On the other hand, at least eight new cases against eight defendants were opened without sufficient justification. It is worth noting that, among these new cases, not a single one relates to the debate around Ukraine, and only one has to do with the incitement of hatred towards the authorities. Half of the cases are opened under the charges of inciting religious hatred.
In the first eight months of 2017, no inappropriate verdicts were issued under Article 354.1 (justification of Nazism). However, Alexei Volkov, the coordinator of Alexei Navalny’s headquarters in Volgograd, was charged under the part of the article pertaining to public desecration of the symbols of Russia's military glory. His charges were based on the fact that, after the green dye attack against Navalny, he published in the Volgograd online community of Navalny’s supporters a collage of the Motherland Calls statue covered with green dye.
In the period under review, no inappropriate verdicts were issued under Article 213 (hooliganism) and Article 214 (vandalism) of the Criminal Code with the recognized motive of hatred, and no new such cases have been initiated.
As far as we know, four sentences were issued in January – August 2017 under Article 148 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code against four people for insulting the feelings of believers. Yekaterinburg video blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky received a suspended sentence of 2 years and 3 months under the aggregation of Articles 148 and 282 of the Criminal Code for publishing offensive videos. A 22-year-old woman from Belgorod was fined for posting on a social network photographs of herself lighting up a cigarette from a votive candle in an Orthodox church. Victor Nochevnov from Sochi and a 21-year-old resident of Omutninsk (the Kirov region) also faced fines for publishing offensive atheistic pictures on social networks. One case under Part 1 of Article 148 was closed in 2017 – the highly publicized process of Viktor Krasnov from Stavropol, charged for making rude atheistic comments on the city VKontakte online community, ended in a cessation of proceedings due to the statute of limitations. However, at least four new cases against four people have been initiated under the same part of the same article (two of them have also been charged under Article 282 for inciting religious hatred). We oppose such prosecution, because we believe that the term "insulting the feelings of believers" has no clear legal meaning, and does not belong in the legislation of a secular state.
According to our information, the courts made no inappropriate decisions under Article 280 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity) in the period under review. Moreover, the verdict to Astrakhan nationalist Igor Stenin, who faced 2 years in prison for calling on a social network for reprisals against the "Kremlin invaders" involved in military operations in Ukraine, was annulled due to the absence of corpus delicti. Meanwhile, three new cases were initiated for abstract statements against the authorities that, in our opinion, did not deserve criminal prosecution per se. Mark Galperin, an activist of the New Opposition movement, is currently under house arrest; the charges against him are based on a video interview, published on the Internet, where he mentioned the central idea of the New Opposition – the idea of a "democratic revolution," the change of power resulting from peaceful mass protests. Leader of the Artpodgotovka movement blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev managed to leave the country prior to being charged under Article 280 of the Criminal Code for some vague statements about the doomed nature of peaceful protests and an impending revolution, made in Moscow on Sakharov Prospect at the rally "For Russia against Arbitrariness and Repressions" on May 6, 2017. Alexei Mironov, a volunteer of Navalny’s headquarters in Cheboksary, was charged under the same article for posting a picture with a rude call for overthrow of the government.
One verdict was issued under Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code (calls for separatism) on doubtful grounds – Buryat activist and blogger Vladimir Khagdaev received a suspended sentence for his online statements in favor of the separation of Buryatia from Russia. In fact, only some of these statements can be regarded as incitement to armed separatism – the only appeals that merit prosecution, in our opinion. We have no information about any new cases of inappropriate prosecution under this article during the period under review.
The courts issued no wrongful convictions under Article 282.1 of the Criminal Code (organization of an extremist community or participation in it) in the first half of 2017, and, to our knowledge, no cases were inappropriately initiated under this article.
At least eight inappropriate verdicts against 27 people were issued under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of an organization recognized as extremist) in the first eight months of 2017.
In Moscow, Yuri Mukhin and his associates Alexander Sokolov, Valery Parfenov and Kirill Barabash, the members of the Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (Za otvetstvennuiu vlast, IGPR “ZOV”), were convicted for continuing the activities of the Army of People’s Will (Armiya Voli Naroda, AVN). Mukhin received a suspended sentence of 4 years; the rest faced actual loss of freedom – Sokolov will spend 3.5 years, and Parfenov and Barabash - 4 years in a minimum-security penal colony. We believe that the court did not have sufficient grounds to ban the AVN (an organization of the Stalinist-nationalist kind), so the conviction for continuing its activities is inappropriate as well.
Five Muslims, who studied the legacy of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, received suspended sentences from a district court in Ufa, for the continuation of the inappropriately banned religious organization Nurcular; then the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan replaced the suspended sentences with the real ones for two of them – they received 4 years and 2 years and 3 months in a minimal security penal colony. A Nursi follower from Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Region was sentenced to 3 years 9 months of imprisonment under the aggregation of Articles 282.2 and 282 of the Criminal Code.
Five more people from Bashkortostan were found guilty of involvement in the activities of Tablighi Jamaat – a Muslim movement, inappropriately recognized as extremist, which is known for its active proselytizing but does not advocate violence. Four of them received real prison terms ranging from 2 to 4.5 years, the fifth – a suspended sentence of 2 years. Ten followers of Tablighi Jamaat were convicted in two criminal cases in Naberezhnye Chelny. All of them received various prison terms from 2 to 4 years. An adept of the same movement in Buryatia received a suspended sentence of 2.5 years. In addition, a Barnaul resident was sentenced to a year in a settlement colony under Article 282.2 part 1.1 of the Criminal Code (involvement in the activities of an organization recognized as extremist) for conducting religious meetings, where he had allegedly involved the attendees in the activities of Tablighi Jamaat.
In January – August 2017, at least seven new cases against approximately two dozen people were opened inappropriately under the charges of continuing the activities of extremist organizations. All these cases relate to prohibited religious associations – we are talking about involvement in the above-mentioned Tablighi Jamaat and Nurcular; the other two cases were initiated against Jehovah's Witnesses in Oryol and Kursk.
Separately, not including it in our general statistics, we note nine verdicts against 20 followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir (these numbers are almost identical to our data for the first eight months of 2016), prosecuted as members of a terrorist organization under Article 205.5 (in some cases – in conjunction with other Criminal Code articles). Muslims in Tatarstan, Moscow, Dagestan, and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug – Ugra were convicted for this offense. We consider these verdicts inappropriate, since we believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir, admittedly a radical Islamist organization, is not a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, courts often mete out very severe punishments under Article 205.5. Five offenders convicted in Moscow were sentenced to the prison terms ranging from 15 to 18 years, four defendants in Kazan – from 16 to 18 years. In January – August 2017, at least 20 new criminal cases were initiated (14 of them in Tatarstan) against at least 42 people.
In addition, we have some doubts about the appropriateness of the sentence under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code (public justification of terrorism) against Mahmud Velitov, the Imam of the Moscow Yardyam Mosque, sentenced to 3 years in a minimal-security colony for his memorial speech in honor of the deceased follower of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in which the Imam had allegedly justified terrorist activities. However, we do not have the information necessary to evaluate this case.
Thus, the total of at least 18 inappropriate verdicts against 37 people were issued under anti-extremist criminal articles in January-August 2017; at least four more verdicts against four people raise doubts. At the same time, we know of approximately 20 criminal cases against almost 40 people, opened in this period without proper justification (not including the cases for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir).
These numbers exceed the corresponding numbers for the first eight months of 2016 (according to our information, 13 inappropriate verdicts were issued against 14 people at that time). However, the following tendencies should be noted – drop in the number of inappropriate criminal prosecutions for "political" statements disagreeable to the authorities (pro-Ukrainian, separatist, directed against representatives of the authorities as a social group) and a sharp increase in prosecutions for statements on religious issues (insulting the feelings of believers, inciting religious hatred) and, especially, for continuing the activities of prohibited religious associations. It should also be noted that, on a number of occasions during this period, the courts reviewed the cases of followers of banned religious organizations, making their sentences harsher – in particular, replacing the suspended sentences with the real prison terms.
Our statistics on the use of the articles of the Code of Administrative Offenses intended for combating extremism is incomplete to such an extent that it differs from the real numbers by an order of magnitude, but we believe that it still allows us to see some general trends.
As before, most of the misuse relates to Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code (mass distribution of extremist materials or their storage for the purpose of distribution) and primarily pertains to prosecution for distribution of wrongfully banned religious literature. We know of at least 22 cases when people and organizations were inappropriately fined under this article, one person faced administrative arrest. Notably, we also receive increasingly frequent reports about the fines for importation to Russia of the religious materials recognized as extremist.
Since the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses organizations were suspended for the period of consideration of the claim for their liquidation, believers, who continued to hold religious meetings, were fined under Article 20.28 of the Administrative Code (organizing the activities of a religious association suspended by a court decision); we know of several such cases.
In January through August, we recorded at least two dozens of inappropriate court decisions under Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code for propaganda and demonstration of extremist symbols; these numbers are close to the ones from the preceding year, but it should be noted that, in half of the cases this year, the courts ruled in favor of an administrative arrest rather than a fine. This is not surprising, since activists are often subjected to inappropriate prosecution on the days of opposition activities.
On April 20, 2017, the Russian Supreme Court issued a decision recognizing the Jehovah's Witnesses' Administrative Center in Russia as an extremist organization and ordering its liquidation. The Appeals Board of the Supreme Court rejected the complaint against this decision on July 17; subsequently, it entered into force. In accordance with this decision, the Administrative Center and 395 local Jehovah's Witnesses organizations, as its structural subdivisions, have been liquidated (they were included in the List of Extremist Organizations under No. 62 on August 17), and their property is confiscated by the state. Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed this Supreme Court decision in the European Court of Human Rights. Now, any follower of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia can be prosecuted under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code. The first such case, according to our data, was already initiated in Kursk – a local woman, who had distributed leaflets of Jehovah's Witnesses on the market, was brought to justice for involvement in the activities of the prohibited organization.
Note also the highly publicized case of recognizing the Bible in the translation of Jehovah's Witnesses and three more of their brochures as extremist, which ended in late August with the ban against these materials, despite the apparent inconsistency of the prosecutor's arguments. We believe that bans against the organizations and the doctrinal texts of Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as prosecutions against the believers, have no legitimate grounds and constitute a clear manifestation of religious discrimination in Russia.
While, in the comparable period in 2016, the Federal List of Extremist Materials increased by almost 600 entries, it only added 185 new entries in 2017 (from 4016 to 4201). It seems that the order of the Prosecutor General's Office issued in March 2016, which transferred the responsibility of filing the requests to ban materials for extremism to prosecutors at the level of the subjects of the federation, has influenced the decline in the growth rate of the already enormous list. Nevertheless, the share of inappropriate bans has increased significantly; from January to the end of August 2017, more than 20 inappropriate entries were added to it (vs. about 15 in the same months of 2016). The new entries include Islamic religious literature, a book about Christian women persecuted for their faith, Jehovah's Witnesses brochures, an Orthodox fundamentalist pamphlet, two books and an article by Jewish authors, atheist materials, and two oppositional publications. That is, this anti-extremist mechanism in the period under review was misused primarily in the sphere of religion.
The Unified Register of Banned Websites blocked by the court decisions as well as the list of websites blocked extrajudicially by the Prosecutor General's Office under the Lugovoy Law (i.e. for incitement to extremist activities or unauthorized public actions) continued to grow actively. The Unified Register now contains at least 1022 items that describe resources recognized as extremist and added approximately 114 items over the review period (this is more than twice the number of items added to the register from January to August 2016). About 20 of them are the websites and webpages banned inappropriately; most of these contain religious materials, primarily Islamic and by Jehovah's Witnesses. The Lugovoy Register contains about two thousand entries that list webpages; it has been growing faster and added over 800 points in the period under review, with the number of clearly inappropriately blocked pages in the single digits. However, it should be separately noted that more than 200 entries of the Lugovoy Register pertain to the Hizb ut-Tahrir materials, blocked simply by association with a banned organization without considering whether they, in fact, contained dangerous propaganda. In particular, the restrictions came to include the information on persecution against the party members in Russia.