Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2020
LAWMAKING : Countering Extremism : “Fight against Nazism” : Regulating the Internet : “Foreign Agents” Legislation
THE PRACTICE OF THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE
PRINCIPAL TARGETS OF PERSECUTION : Ideological Opponents of the Regime : Sanctions for Calls for Extremist Activity and Incitement to Hatred : Sanctions for Incitement to Separatism : Sanctions for “Justification of Terrorism” : Other Sanctions for Anti-Government Statements : Prosecutions for Anti-Government Group Initiatives : Banning Organizations for Extremism
Side Effects of the Fight for Tolerance : Prosecutions for “Rehabilitation of Nazism” : Sanctions for Display of Extremist Symbols : Protecting “the Feelings of Religious Believers”
Religious Groups : Hizb ut-Tahrir : Tablighi Jamaat : Said Nursi Followers : Recognizing Islamic Materials as Extremist : Jehovah’s Witnesses : Falun Gong : Protestant Denominations : Administrative Sanctions for Distributing Religious Literature
Sanctions against Libraries
Mass Media and Anti-Extremism
A BIT OF STATISTICS
This report presents an analytical review of anti-extremist legislation and its misuse in 2020. SOVA Center has been publishing these annual reports on a regular basis to summarize the results of the monitoring carried out by the organization continuously since mid-2000s.
In 2020, as in the year before that, the course on increasing the severity of the old restrictive norms in our sphere of interest and introducing new measures has continued, affecting primarily freedom of expression in one way or another, whether online or offline. On the one hand, it looks like the authorities are trying to protect themselves – think of the fresh restrictions against freedom of assembly, the new Internet control measures, and the new laws against “foreign agents,” obviously designed to limit the possibility of external or internal criticism against the political course of the country. On the other hand, the authorities show growing ambitions related to imposing state ideology and upholding public morality. Here, we should mention a number of new initiatives designed to protect the apologetical image of the significant aspects of the country's past along with absurd attempts to use restrictive legislation as the means to inspire citizens to be polite or to discourage them from the values of the criminal underworld. The underlying rationale for such ambitions is not clear – it would seem that the modern information society possesses numerous means for critical assessment of reality and does not demonstrate increased susceptibility to ideological control when compared to prior periods. Attempts to tear the Russian information society away from the global one are generally utopian and can only have a temporary effect in the form of slowing down the country's development.
Speaking of the law enforcement statistics for 2020, we would like to point out the growing number of charges under articles about public statements that we view as inappropriate. A considerable share of them were sentences under Article 2052 of the Criminal Code on justification of terrorism, the application of which has been expanding in recent years. Inappropriate sentences under Article 2052 or Article 280 of the Criminal Code for calls for extremist activity as well as sanctions under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for incitement to hatred (introduced in 2019 as a result of the partial decriminalization of Article 282 of the Criminal Code) and under several parts of Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses that punish “disrespect for the authorities” testify to the growing official intolerance of more or less aggressive criticism. The number of inappropriate sentences issued under the criminal article on the rehabilitation of Nazism has increased as well; the newly adopted amendments to the administrative article on the display of prohibited symbols (including Nazi) proved unable to either significantly reduce the scope of its use or prevent its misuse that continues to generate numerous oddities. The practice of blocking certain materials on the Internet without proper legal justification continues, but our information here is too fragmentary to gauge the dynamics, and Roskomnadzor, for unknown reasons, did not publish reports on blocked materials in 2020.
The repressive policies toward religious minorities have generally remained unchanged. The authorities are actively suppressing the activities of religious organizations and movements of foreign origin (both Western and Eastern) that they consider unconventional and undesirable for Russia. The contradiction between bans on the activities of organizations recognized as extremist, enshrined in the criminal law, and the right to choose a faith and profess it individually and collectively, guaranteed in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, has not been resolved, so persecution against adherents of banned religious associations continues. As in the preceding year, Jehovah's Witnesses hold the first place for the number of believers that have faced criminal charges for continuing their religious practice, although the campaign against them was less ambitious in 2020 than in 2019. The scope of the persecution against supporters of the Islamic radical party Hizb ut-Tahrir sentenced to long terms of imprisonment solely on the basis of their alleged affiliation with an organization recognized as terrorist in Russia (although never implicated in terrorist activities) slightly decreased in 2020. The practice of inappropriate prohibition of religious literature “for extremism” continued – in 2020, the courts banned not only Islamic religious materials but also, for example, books by a 20th Century American Protestant preacher.
The European Court of Human Rights continued to issue decisions on the complaints submitted by Russian citizens, repeatedly pointing out the inconsistency of the anti-extremist legislation and law enforcement with Russia's obligations under the European Convention that guarantees fundamental human rights – the right to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of association. However, the Russian authorities not only continue acting in the direction that multiplies and aggravates the shortcomings of the legislation, but also increasingly say that the decisions of the European Court should not be valid in Russia at all.
2020 turned out to be so rich in legislative innovations in the sphere covered by this report that we divided them into several blocks. The first one includes changes directly related to anti-extremist legislation as a whole, the second covers norms that are presented as instruments for countering Nazism, the third deals with blocking online information, and the fourth one is the legislation on “foreign agents.” In general, we can conclude that only a small minority of these new norms can be interpreted as attempts to correct the shortcomings of the existing legislation, while the bulk of them are clearly repressive.
In May, Putin signed a law that bans people convicted under certain anti-extremist and related articles of the Criminal Code (Article 2052 Part 1, Article 2072 Parts 1 and 2, Article 2121, Article 239 Part 1, Article 2434 Part 2, Article 244 Part 1, Article 280 Part 2, Article 2801 Part 2, Article 282 Part 1, and Article 3541 Part 2) from running for elected office for five years after expunction or clearing of their criminal record. Previously, offenders convicted for “crimes of extremism” could not run until their criminal record has been cleared (with the exception of those convicted for grave and especially grave crimes, who, after clearing of their criminal record, continue to be restricted from running for 10 and 15 years respectively). We see no valid reasons for additional restrictions on the right to stand for election, including for those convicted of any of the Criminal Code articles listed above. In addition, we believe that prosecutions under many of these articles are frequently inappropriate.
Also in May, the President approved a new version of the Strategy for Countering Extremism until 2025. Among other considerations, the Strategy clarified certain concepts (including “radicalism”) and defined the concept of “ideology of violence.” The document, on the one hand classifies “destructive activities” of NGOs (including “the use of techniques and scenarios of the so-called ‘color revolutions’”) as extremism, and calls for paying attention to the “informational-psychological influence” of foreign intelligence services aimed at destroying the traditional values. On the other hand, when discussing the migration policy priorities related to countering extremism, the Strategy proposes to focus not on combating “illegal migration,” but on adaptation programs, on counteracting social exclusion, formation of ethnic enclaves, and spatial segregation, and on involving civil society institutions. Finally, for the first time, the Strategy defines quantitative indicators that include the percentage of violent crimes among “the crimes of extremist nature.”
In July, a law was signed on amendments to Article 1 of the Law “On Combating Extremist Activity.” The law replaced the wording “forcible change of the foundations of the constitutional order and violation of the integrity of the Russian Federation” in the definition of extremism with the following: “forcible change of the foundations of the constitutional order and (or) violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (including alienation of part of the territory of the Russian Federation) with the exception of delimitation, demarcation or re-demarcation of state borders of the Russian Federation with neighboring states.” Thus, the law “On Combating Extremist Activity” was brought in line with the new edition of the Russian Constitution.
The law amending the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation as they relate to separatism was approved by the President in December. Criminal liability was established for the separatist actions per se; for this, a new Article 2802 of the Criminal Code (actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation) was introduced with the maximum incarceration sentence of 10 years. Publishing calls for separatism for the first time now entail administrative liability under the new Article 20.3.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which can also apply to legal entities; liability under already existing Article 2801 of the Criminal Code is only triggered by a repeated offense committed within a year. We believe that calls for changing country borders should only be considered illegal if combined with calls for violent action, but the Supreme Court is of the opposite opinion. Taking into account the fact that the litigation in administrative cases is much more superficial than in criminal proceedings, we cannot presume that the number of inappropriate sanctions will decrease with the introduction of Article 20.3.2; it may even increase instead. So far, Article 2801 was invoked in no more than ten sentences a year. As for Article 2802, it uses the wording “other actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity,” which is quite vague and may turn into an expansive interpretation and lead to prosecution, in particular, for expressing an opinion on the status of certain territories.
In October, Vladimir Putin signed a government-developed law amending Articles 9 and 10 of the Federal Law “On Combating Extremist Activities”; the courts that make decisions to ban or suspend an organization's activities as extremist now must send their decision to the Ministry of Justice within three days for it to be included on the relevant list. Previously, this period was not defined, so, in practice, it took up to five years for a banned organization to appear on the list.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice published in September a government-developed legislative proposal to create a specialized data bank of extremist materials. As the Federal List of such materials gains additional entries, the Ministry of Justice will enter their copies into this data bank for internal use in order to simplify identification of allegedly extremist materials by comparing them with the previously prohibited ones.
During the year, the Ministry of Justice of Russia twice submitted for discussion a draft of a new Code of Administrative Offenses. Among the feasible proposals for changing anti-extremist or similar articles of the Code of Administrative Offenses, we noted the following: it was proposed to reduce the maximum length of community service under the article on incitement to hatred; to combine two parts of the article on prohibited symbols (on displaying and on selling attributes and symbols), which means a more lenient punishment for the sale of attributes and symbols; to exclude from the Code of Administrative Offenses the punishment for “insulting the authorities” more than twice. According to the proposed version of the Code, administrative offenses that represent a violation of the anti-extremist legislative norms should be considered grave, meaning that such cases cannot be terminated due to the trifling nature of the offences. The project cements the understanding of the term “continuing offense” that has developed in practice – the fact that has relevance with respect to sanctions for online publications. As to the general period of limitations for administrative responsibility, the Ministry of Justice insists that it should be one year, with longer terms applicable under a number of articles. In particular, a period of two years has been proposed for gross administrative offenses. However, the proposals set the period of limitations at two months for violations of the laws on mass media except for the article on abuse of freedom of mass information or on information processing, as well as for offenses infringing on the order of governance and on public morality (three months for cases already under consideration in court).
In December, the State Duma approved in the first reading amendments to the federal law “On Education,” providing for the introduction of the legal concept of “educational activity” as an activity aimed at dissemination of knowledge or experience that is carried out outside the framework of educational programs. According to the bill, the procedure, conditions and forms of conducting such activity should be determined by the government, thus already expanding its powers immensely. In addition, the authors of the bill seek to prohibit (following the example of the existing restrictions on pedagogical activity) “the use of educational activities to incite social, racial, national or religious hatred, for propaganda that promotes exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of their social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation or their attitude toward religion, including through the provision of inaccurate information about the historical, national, religious and cultural traditions of peoples, or to induce actions that contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” The bill also proposed making the coordination of the educational organizations’ participation in international scientific cooperation the federal government prerogative. According to the authors of the draft law, agreements on international cooperation should be signed by educational organizations only after they obtain a supporting decision from a ministry (the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation). We believe that the wording proposed and already used in the Law “On Education,” in particular, on “reporting inaccurate information about the historical, national, religious and cultural traditions of peoples,” does not preclude the possibility of being used for limiting the historical discussion and for imposing unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech in general.
In December, the government bill on amendments to the federal law “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations” was adopted in the first reading. Among other legislative innovations, the amendments stipulate that the following types of persons are not allowed to be leaders or members of religious groups: a foreign citizen or a stateless person, whose continued stay in the Russian Federation has been deemed undesirable; a person included on the Rosfinmonitoring List of Extremists and Terrorists; a person in respect of whom a court decision established that their actions amounted to extremist activity; an individual whose accounts are frozen by the Interdepartmental Commission on Countering the Financing of Terrorism. Thus, the requirements already present in the legislation on non-profit organizations, including religious ones, are being extended to include the leaders and members of religious groups. In our opinion, these new restrictions represent yet another unjustified intrusion into the exercise of the right to freedom of religion.
In March 2020, Vladimir Putin signed a law amending Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (public display of Nazi symbols). Disposition and sanctions of Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses have remained unchanged – only a note was added to clarify that the provisions of the article “do not apply to cases, in which Nazi attributes or symbols, or attributes or symbols similar to Nazi attributes or symbols to the point of confusion, or attributes or symbols of extremist organizations are used to form a negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism and extremism, and there are no signs of propaganda or justification of Nazi or extremist ideology.” Similar amendments to the laws “On Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945,” and “On Combating Extremist Activity” were adopted in late 2019. As expected, this clause did not cover all the cases, in which banned symbols could possibly be displayed without the purpose of advocating the relevant ideology; the courts invoked it only in some of the applicable cases. In our opinion, explicitly stating in federal laws and Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses that the display of forbidden symbols is punishable only if intended as propaganda of the corresponding banned organizations ideology would have been more effective in decreasing the number of inappropriate enforcement cases.
In April, a law was signed to prevent demolition of Soviet monuments abroad. A new Article 2434 of the Criminal Code (destruction or damage to military graves, as well as monuments, stelae, obelisks, other memorial structures or objects, which immortalize the memory of those who died defending their Fatherland or its interests, or are dedicated to the days of Russia’s military glory) with punishments that include multimillion fines and imprisonment, among others. It should be noted that, although the introduction of this article is motivated primarily by foreign policy considerations, it can be applied to Russian citizens as well. At the same time, the actions described in the text of this norm were already punishable under the existing articles of the Criminal Code; therefore, there were no need to create it; meanwhile, the stipulated sanctions, especially large fines, are, in our opinion, disproportionately severe.
In November, Deputy Irina Yarovaya introduced two draft bills in the State Duma to amend Article 3541 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism) and the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation. One of them proposes to make responsibility for online dissemination of information aimed at rehabilitation of Nazism equal to responsibility for dissemination of such information via mass media – that is, to qualify such activities under the more severe Part 2 of Article 3541. The second bill seeks to introduce administrative punishment for the rehabilitation of Nazism in mass media; for this purpose, a related part, which stipulates a fine for legal entities of up to three million rubles with or without confiscation of the offending item, should be added to Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. We would like to remind that we view Article 3541 of the Criminal Code as excessive and imprecisely formulated legal norm, some provisions of which excessively limit the historical discussion; we oppose increasing in severity and expanding the sanctions for the rehabilitation of Nazism. The bill was adopted in the first reading in February 2021, and, by the second reading, it will be expanded to add the new vaguely formulated restrictions prohibiting dissemination of knowingly false information about veterans, abasement of their honor and dignity and insult against the memory of defenders of the Fatherland.
Also in November, a group of State Duma deputies headed by Elena Yampolskaya submitted to the Duma two bills to ban the public display of the faces of Nazi criminals. The changes suggested in these legislative proposals include amending the federal laws “On Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945” and “On Combating Extremist Activities,” and amending Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which punishes for display of banned symbols, by explicitly stating that public display of facial images of persons found guilty by the Nuremberg Tribunal (or by Nuremberg Tribunal-based decisions by national military or occupation tribunals, or by sentences imposed during the Second World War) is prohibited and classified as extremist activity. At the same time, similarly to the existing legislation on the use of Nazi symbols, the new proposal exempts such display from punishment, if it forms a negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism and shows no signs of propaganda or justification of Nazism. We regard this initiative as problematic for several reasons. First, some prominent Nazis (Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels) had died before the start of the Nuremberg Tribunal and were never convicted by it. At the same time, faces of the overwhelming majority of Nazi criminals are simply not familiar to Russian citizens, making the enforcement of this legal norm unpredictable. Yampolskaya herself, in early 2021, drew attention to the fact that the amendments as written do not apply to a portrait of Hitler and pointed out that the flaws in the wording could be corrected by the second reading. Furthermore, portraits of party leaders become propaganda tools only in a certain context. It is obvious that the proposed amendments will inherit all the shortcomings of the existing legal regulation of displaying Nazi symbols, which, for example, allow sanctions against citizens who displayed the symbols as a means of political polemics or satire. The ban on displaying faces of war criminals will run into the same problem.
In April, the president signed amendments, which included expanded and more severe punishments for distributing fake news in mass media and over the Internet. Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses has been supplemented by a new Part 10.1 that punishes dissemination of “deliberately unreliable information under the guise of reliable messages” with regard to emergency situations and measures to counter them. Such actions will incur heavy fines, but only for legal entities. Legal entities are also liable under the new Part 10.2 for distribution of false information resulting in death, damage to health, violation of public order or security, and so on. Part 11 of the new version covers repeated offenses under Parts 10, 10.1 and 10.2, also increasing the severity of sanctions for legal entities. The same amendments also indicate that individuals can be criminally liable under new Article 2071 (public dissemination of knowingly false information about circumstances posing a threat to the life and safety of citizens), which provides for punishment of up to three years behind bars, and Article 2072 of the Criminal Code (public dissemination of knowingly false socially significant information that entailed grave consequences), with the maximum imprisonment term of five years. We believe that there is no need for criminal prosecution for disseminating false information about emergencies, and the proposed sanctions appear disproportionately harsh.
Throughout the year, new norms were adopted to expand the grounds for extrajudicial blocking of information and increase the severity of sanctions for evading it. We believe that this area of legislation has systemic shortcomings, and the use of extrajudicial blocking procedures in practice often unreasonably and disproportionately restricts freedom of speech. However, the Russian authorities are not inclined to listen to the European Court of Human Rights, which in its decisions, including the ones made in 2020, drew attention to the fact that this legislation did not comply with the requirements of the European Convention (see below).
In early June, Vladimir Putin signed a law that obligates hosting providers to carry out extrajudicial blocking of websites. The amendments, which entered into force on October 1, introduce changes in the extrajudicial blocking mechanism described in Article 15.3 of the Federal Law “On Information.” Previously, upon receiving a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office, Roskomnadzor ordered telecom operators to block the indicated website; then a hosting provider received a notification that the website has been blocked, and had to notify the site owner of the need to delete the problematic information within 24 hours. Now, a hosting provider has to notify the owner immediately after receiving the notification from Roskomnadzor. If the site owner fails to delete the information within 24 hours, the provider will have to block the information resource indicated in the notification (the blocking obligations of telecom operators remain unchanged). Previously, a site owner could delete the information indicated in the notification and inform Roskomnadzor, and then telecom operators had to unlock his resource. The amendments, despite imposing on hosting providers the obligation to block sites, fail to provide for any obligations to remove such restrictions.
In December, a law was signed on sanctions for hosting providers and website owners for failure to remove or block content. According to Article 13.41, newly added to the Code of Administrative Offenses, large fines are to be imposed for failure to take measures on restricting access to websites, access to which has to be limited in accordance with the requirements of the law (except in cases of copyright infringement): up to 100 thousand rubles for individuals, up to 400 thousand for officials, up to 4 million for legal entities; fines for repeated offenses are doubled for individuals and officials, and for legal entities they range from 1/20 to 1/10 of revenue, but no less than 4 million rubles. Fines for failure to block exceptionally dangerous content, including extremist content (along with child pornography and information about drugs) range from 100 to 200 thousand rubles for individuals, from 400 to 800 thousand for officials, from 3 to 8 million for legal entities. In case of repeated offense fines range from 200 to 500 thousand rubles for individuals, from 800 to 1 million rubles for officials, and from 1/10 to 1/5 of the proceeds, but no less than 8 million rubles for legal entities.
Also in December, the president approved a law on mandatory filtering of inappropriate content on social networks. For the purposes of this law, the authorities will grant the status of a social network to services with a monthly audience of more than 500 thousand Russian users. Social networks are obligated to independently monitor information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in Russia and which is subject to extrajudicial blocking (including information that contains calls for mass riots, carrying out extremist activities or participation in unpermitted rallies, as well as alleged fakes, materials of “undesirable organizations” and links to them and statements “offensive for the authorities and the society”), accept complaints about such content and block it. In disputable cases, the content will be temporarily blocked and submitted through Roskomnadzor to the competent authorities, so that the latter could make a decision on whether it should be restricted permanently. In case of non-compliance social networks are to be punished in accordance with Article 13.41 described above.
However, in addition to the above-listed requirements for content removal or blocking, social networks are required to make sure that their resources are not used to violate the electoral legislation restrictions (which have not yet been added to the list of information subject to extrajudicial blocking, see the corresponding bill below) or “to defame a citizen or certain categories of citizens” based on their belonging to a certain group, including their place of work and political convictions. In addition, obscene language and attacks against honor, dignity, or business reputation of citizens or organizations are unacceptable (the latter case also mentions the possibility of filing civil claims, but it is not clear whether the claims should be filed against offenders or against a social network). Consistent compliance with all these requirements will obviously end not just political discussions, but any kind of polemics on social network pages.
Simultaneously with the legislative proposal described above, aimed at forcing foreign social networks to comply with Russian law, a law was signed to prevent social networks from censoring information that comes from pro-government Russian media. The explanatory note to the relevant bill explicitly stated that the need for such a measure was made obvious by the fact that, since April 2020, about 20 instances of “discrimination” have been recorded for such media as RT, RIA Novosti, and Crimea 24 by foreign Internet sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The law “On Measures of Influence on Persons Involved in Violations of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Russian Federation” was supplemented by an article, according to which the owner of an information resource used by Russian citizens and legal entities is recognized as involved in human rights violations if the resource restricts dissemination of socially significant information in Russia “on the basis of nationality, language, origin, property ownership or job title, profession, place of residence or work, attitude toward religion and (or) in connection with the introduction by foreign states of political or economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, citizens of the Russian Federation or Russian legal entities,” or restricts the right of Russian citizens to freely seek, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information by any legal means. The decision to recognize a resource owner as implicated in human rights violations is made by the Prosecutor General of Russia or his deputies in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The decision is then forwarded to Roskomnadzor, which must, within 24 hours, add the owner of the resource to the appropriate list, and then issue a warning. Upon eliminating the violations, the owner must notify Roskomnadzor, and the latter sends a notification to the Prosecutor General's Office, which, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decides whether or not to cancel the imposed “sanctions.” If the owner of the resource fails to comply with the requirements of the Russian authorities within the time frame specified in the warning, Roskomnadzor restricts access to this resource completely or partially. Partial restriction in this context can mean slowing down the Internet traffic. A law introducing sanctions for non-compliance with the requirements described above was proposed in November 2020 and signed in February 2021. The fine under the new article of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which punishes for its violation, ranges from 50 to 100 thousand rubles for individuals, 200 to 400 thousand rubles for officials, and 600 thousand to 1 million rubles for legal entities. The fine for repeated failure to comply with the requirements of the law is set for 200 to 300 thousand rubles for individuals, 500 to 700 thousand for officials, and from 1.5 to 3 million rubles for legal entities.
The State Duma commission to investigate the facts of interference by foreign states in Russia’s internal affairs submitted to the parliament a bill on amendments to the federal law “On information, information technology and the protection of information.” in July. The amendments pertain to Article 15.3 Part 1 of the law – now not only information containing “calls for mass riots and carrying out extremist activities” (current version), but also the one “containing justification for and (or) excuse of extremist activities, including terrorist activities” will be subject to extrajudicial blocking. We believe that the proposed amendments with their vague wording will only aggravate the situation, making both academic research and public discussion a possible target under the law. The government fully supported the bill and proposed, for good measure, that the extrajudicial blocking mechanism be extended to “Internet resources spreading false messages about acts of terrorism.”
In November, another bill was introduced to the State Duma, expanding the list of online information subject to extrajudicial blocking; it proposes that election commissions be instructed to make decisions on temporary blocking of illegal campaign propaganda. Following a report by election commissions about the presence of such information on the Internet, Roskomnadzor would be expected to immediately send to a provider a request to temporarily block the offending site (subject to immediate compliance). According to the bill, blocking can start no earlier than the day of the announcement of the elections, and ends five days after the date their results are determined. The bill passed its first reading in December; the second and third readings took place in February 2021. Given that illegal campaign propaganda is most likely to appear on social networks, and selective blocking of social media messages by the authorities is technically impossible, the existence of such a law increases the risk of complete blocking of certain social networks during the electoral campaign.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation published a draft bill to ban certain online encryption protocols. The plan is to amend the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technology and Information Protection” and ban the use of any encryption protocols that allow hiding the name of a webpage or a website, except in certain specific permitted cases. Violation of the ban will result in blocking of the site within 24 hours. The purpose of the bill is to eliminate the increasingly widespread technical methods of bypassing restrictions.
During 2020, several laws were developed and adopted to provide for more stringent regulation of the activities of so-called “foreign agents” in Russia. Although this area of legislation is not directly related to the fight against extremism, it fits the general trend of imposing, under the pretext of protecting national or public security, unreasonable and excessive restrictions on freedom of speech, which are in fact aimed at suppressing criticism of government's policy. In addition, since SOVA Center, along with other Russian NGOs that focus on legislation and law enforcement issues in Russia and receive foreign funding, has been recognized as a “foreign agent,” we must point out that the increased severity of this legislation directly affects our ability to continue our work.
In December, the President signed the law “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Establishment of Additional Measures to Counteract Threats to National Security,” which was submitted to the State Duma in November and rapidly passed all stages of approval. This law added to the “Foreign Agent” status, already existing for an NGO, similar status designations for public associations with no corresponding legal entity and for individuals. The “foreign agent” status is still assigned based on a combination of two criteria. The first one is foreign support from governments, international organizations or individuals, even if received through a Russian “intermediary.” For individuals designated as “foreign agents” not only financial, but also methodological assistance counts as foreign support. The second criterion is “political activity” in its current definition, which covers any notable public activity. Moreover, an individual can become a “foreign agent” even without “politics” if engaged in “purposeful collection of information in the field of military or military technology activities” (the law does not specify the kind of information; the FSB will do it later) without the purpose of espionage.
Similarly to NGOs, unregistered public associations and individuals who meet these criteria will be obligated to register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice, but the Ministry of Justice can also assign this status to people or associations directly. All types of “foreign agents” must submit regular reports on their “political activity,” receipt and expenditure of money, as well as disclose their “foreign agent” status in any situation that can be interpreted as political activity, when making any statements or appeals to government agencies and organizations. Mass media also need to cite their status every time they mention “foreign agents.”
It should be noted that the adopted law directly limits the rights of individuals recognized as “foreign agents” – they cannot be admitted to state and municipal public service and to state secrets.
In December, a law was signed to amend Article 3301 of the Criminal Code now renamed “Malicious Evasion from the Fulfillment of Duties Imposed by the Legislation of the Russian Federation, in Connection with Being Recognized as a Person Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent.” The sanctions for such evasion are:
- for leaders NGOs and unregistered public associations – up to two years of imprisonment;
- for leaders of foreign media “foreign agents,”their subsidiary Russian “foreign agents” legal entities, as well as for individuals already listed in the register of “foreign agents” and facing administrative responsibility for repeated violation of the operating procedures for “foreign agents” media, – also up to two years' imprisonment;
- for individuals recognized as “foreign agents” who carry out political activities and have already been brought to administrative responsibility for it, or who collect the aforementioned military-technical information – up to five years in prison.
In addition, by the end of the year, the State Duma passed in the first reading a bill introducing or increasing administrative liability for all categories of “foreign agents” for violation of operating procedure – absent labeling on their materials or failure to provide information about themselves and their status. The bill was passed by parliament and signed by the president in early 2021. The changes also affected Article 13.15 of the Code of Administrative Offenses on abusing freedom of mass information, which now includes the fines for disseminating information by or about “foreign agents” in the mass media without the appropriate labeling.
In December, a draft law, under which candidates in elections would have to self-report as a “foreign agent” or “a candidate affiliated with a person acting as a foreign agent” if the candidate received money from any “foreign agent” within the preceding two years, passed the first reading. According to the bill, these labels should accompany all signature lists and all types of electoral information, including debates. The bill extends the ban on participation in election campaigns, already in force for “foreign agent” NGOs, to unregistered “foreign agent” public associations and “foreign agent” media.
In March, the European Court of Human Rights published a decision on the complaint of St. Petersburg journalist Nikolai Andrushchenko (1943–2017), who was sentenced in 2009 for insulting a government official (Article 319 of the Criminal Code) and inciting hatred (Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code) to a suspended prison term and a fine, and then released from punishment. He was charged with inciting hatred against the social group “law enforcement officers” under Article 282 for publishing an article about forcible dispersal of a protest demonstration. The ECHR drew an analogy with the previously reviewed case of Savva Terentyev and refused to recognize the police and FSB officers, negatively characterized by Andrushchenko, as a vulnerable social group. The Strasbourg court also emphasized that Andrushchenko’s article dealt with the socially significant issue of using force at public events, and rejected the arguments that law enforcement officials could become victims of violence as a result of its publication. Thus, the ECHR found a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.
In June, the European Court of Human Rights published its decisions on several complaints with regard to blocking online materials in Russia. The first case, OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, examined complaints from the publishers of Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru and the Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal (ej.ru) websites. All three sites were blocked extrajudicially upon request of the Prosecutor General (i.e., under “Lugovoy’s Law“) in 2014 on the charges of publishing calls for extremist activity and calls for participation in public actions held without permit. In addition, the ECHR published a decision on the complaint by Yevgeny Bulgakov, the owner of the “Worldview of the Russian Civilization” (www.razumei.ru) website, which was completely blocked on the basis of a 2012 court decision, because the prosecutor’s office had found a banned book on one of its pages; the access to the website was not restored after the book’s removal. The ECHR also made public its decision on the complaint by Gregory Engels, a member of the German Pirate Party and the owner of the domain rublacklist.net, who appealed the decision to block a page of the RosKomSvoboda website that provided information on the tools and software for bypassing restrictions. Finally, the court published its review of the complaint by Vladimir Kharitonov, who disputed the restrictions against his website (digital-books.ru). The site was unavailable from December 2012 to March 2013 due to the fact that it had the same IP address as another website, “The Rastaman Tales,” which allegedly contained illegal content. Each of these four cases has its own peculiarities examined by the European Court of Justice. However, the shortcomings of the blocking mechanisms stipulated in the Russian law on information and of the decisions made by the Russian courts have led the ECHR to recognize, with respect to all the applicants, a violation of their rights to freedom of expression and to an effective remedy guaranteed by Articles 10 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In October, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision in the case “Karastelev and Others v. Russia.” The complaint was filed by human rights defenders Vadim Karastelev and Tamara Karasteleva from Novorossiysk (Tamara died in 2011), and by their organization, the Novorossiysk Committee for Human Rights (Novorossiysky komitet po pravam cheloveka). In April 2009, Tamara and Vadim Karastelev held two “static demonstrations” (pickets). During the first one, they publicly exhibited a poster stating “Freedom Is Not Granted; It Has to Be Taken”; during the second one, they were approached by two teenagers, whose parents subsequently complained to the prosecutor's office that Tamara and Vadim incited their children to participate in protest actions. After that, the prosecutor's office issued warnings to Karastelev about the unacceptability of violating the anti-extremist legislation and a caution to the Novorossiysk Committee for Human Rights about the unacceptability of violating the anti-extremist legislation with an order to remedy these violations. When Tamara Karasteleva tried to challenge these measures in court, the prosecutor's office presented the expert reports, according to which the poster was extremist and provocative in its message. As a result, the court dismissed the complaint. Vadim Karastelev’s attempt to challenge the warnings failed as well, since the court ruled that the disputed issue had already been resolved during the review of Tamara Karasteleva’s complaint.
The ECHR noted, on the one hand, that the wording of the Russian law “On Combating Extremist Activities” that pertains to issuance of warnings and cautions created legal uncertainty making this legal mechanism unpredictable, suppressing freedom of expression, and leaving too much discretion to the executive. In addition, according to the legislation in force in 2009, the applicants were limited in their ability to challenge the actions of the prosecutor in civil proceedings. On the other hand, according to the ECHR, the arguments presented by the prosecutor's office fail to support the conclusion that the actions by Vadim and Tamara Karastelev had posed a risk of obstruction of the lawful activities of the authorities and a real threat of violence, which could serve as a basis for interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, the ECHR found that, with respect to Vadim Karastelev, the Russian state has also violated Article 6 of the Convention (right to a fair trial). As a result, he was awarded compensation for non-pecuniary damage.
In September, the ECHR ruled in the Vasilyev and Others v. Russia case and partially satisfied a complaint by members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic party recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization. A complaint to the ECHR was filed by five residents of Chuvashia, convicted in 2007 under Article 2822 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of a banned organization) and Article 282 Part 2 Paragraph “c” of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred committed by an organized group). The ECHR refused to consider their complaint about the violation by the Russian justice system of several European Convention on Human Rights provisions: Article 9 (freedom of conscience), Article 10 (freedom of expression), Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) separately and in combination with Article 14 (ban on discrimination). Back in 2013, as part of its review of the complaint “Kasymakhunov and Saybatalov v. Russia,” the ECHR concluded that, on the basis of Article 17 of the Convention, the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir are not protected by the Convention, since the organization intends to abolish the rights and freedoms recognized by the Convention. However, the Strasbourg Court satisfied the complaint in its part relating to Article 6 of the Convention, which guarantees the right to a fair trial. According to the ECHR, the Russian court violated Article 6 because it provided no compelling reason for its refusal to disclose the witnesses in the case, and never explained why the testimony of the secret witnesses could be taken as a decisive evidence – as it usually happens in criminal cases that pertain to affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In 2020, the ECHR also communicated a number of important complaints related to our sphere of interest – the scope of Article 10 of the European Convention.
Thus, in January, the Strasbourg court communicated the complaint of Ruslan Sokolovsky, who in 2017 received a suspended sentence – from our point of view, inappropriately – for insulting the feelings of believers, inciting hatred and acquiring a “spy” pen, but then was released from punishment due to partial decriminalization of Article 282 of the Criminal Code. In October, a complaint about blocking the Telegram messenger was communicated; perhaps in anticipation of this event, the Russian authorities decided in June to urgently unblock the messenger. They did not even need to review the relevant court decisions or adopt a special law on amending the law on information, the draft of which had been submitted to the State Duma. In the same month, it became known that the ECHR combined and communicated 19 complaints from 17 Russians brought to administrative responsibility under Article 20.1 Parts 3-4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for online dissemination of information that expresses disrespect for the society and the state.
In August, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) published a list of questions addressed to Russia in connection with its eighth periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Among other things, the UNHRC asked Russia to report on steps taken to revise the Federal Law “On Combating Extremist Activities” (in order to clarify the vague definition of “extremist activities), to revise the Federal List of Extremist Materials and to prevent arbitrary use of the Law “On Combating Extremist Activities.” The Committee expressed its concern about the persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia in the context of exercising freedom of religion. The UNHRC also expressed concern on a number of other issues, including whether Russia was taking steps to combat racist and homophobic rhetoric and racial profiling, as well as manifestations of hatred, violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Committee inquired about the enforcement of the legislation on “promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors” and the prospects for its repeal, about ensuring the rights of same-sex couples and the right of the LGBT community to peaceful assembly; and about the possible spread of homophobia following the adoption of the constitutional amendments. The UNHRC asked Russia to comment on allegations of the persecution and ill-treatment of political opponents of the government under the pretext of combating terrorism with regard to the prosecutions against members of the banned organizations, Network (Set’) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, and allegations of unjustified restrictions on freedom of speech in connection with the case of Svetlana Prokopieva (see below). The committee asked Russia to report on its law enforcement under the articles regulating freedom of expression, such as insulting the feelings of believers, rehabilitation of Nazism, slander, disrespect for the society and the state, and dissemination of fake news. A brief joint report, submitted earlier by 12 Russian NGOs including SOVA Center, was taken into account when compiling the list of questions for the Russian authorities.
It should be noted that almost all cases of prosecution under criminal articles related to speech or administrative anti-extremist articles reported in 2020, which we regard as inappropriate, were, in fact, sanctions for expression of political views, primarily for harsh statements against the authorities. Most of these statements were made online; as it has been the case in recent years, online oppositional activity attracts the attention of law enforcement agencies and often provokes unjustified and disproportionate reactions.
In late October, the Nakhimovsky District Court of Sevastopol retried the case of Valery Bolshakov – the former head of the Sevastopol Workers Union and the secretary of the Sevastopol branch of the Russian United Labor Front Party (ROT FRONT) – and issued a suspended sentence of two and a half years with a two-year ban on holding leadership positions under Article 280 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity including those committed on the Internet). The verdict was upheld by the Sevastopol City Court in December. The charges against Bolshakov under Article 280 Part 2 were based on his social network posts that included offensive characteristics of the Terek Cossacks and called for “kicking them out to Novorossiya”; the posts also contained accusations against the Russian authorities of “genocide against the people of Russia,” Lenin quotes and calls for “establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat by violent means.” The charge under Article 280 Part 1 was based on a speech made by Bolshakov during his one-man picket with the poster “Down with Putin's Police State.”
The court found that the poster as well as Bolshakov's speech (in which he wished for the imminent demise of “Putin's dictatorship” and the “police state” and the subsequent establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat) contained calls for “the elimination of the officially acting government.” We are inclined to believe that the calls for revolution and for the proletariat to take power, which are often heard from activists on the left, are, in most cases, not capable of instigating real violent anti-government actions and are more accurately interpreted as a figure of speech employed to convey dissatisfaction with the current authorities. Bolshakov's statements about the Cossacks, however, can indeed be understood as a call for their deportation; at the same time, the court should have taken into account the vanishingly small likelihood for such calls to be implemented in the modern political context. Earlier, in June 2019, Bolshakov was sentenced on the same charges to the same punishment, but then the sentence was canceled and the case was returned to the prosecutor's office.
It became known in January that former police officer Alexei Dymovsky had been charged under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity committed on the Internet) in connection with his YouTube video “Alexei Dymovsky: Thought of Killing Putin” recorded in October 2019. It is worth recalling that Dymovsky gained notoriety in 2009 when he publicly addressed Russian officers and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a story about the palochnaya sistema (“ticking system,” implying that the number of cases filed and solved by the police should meet the quasi-plans of the authorities) and corruption in the Ministry of Internal Affairs system. After that, he was dismissed from the police, and a case of fraud with the use of official position was opened against him; it was later terminated. Dymovsky's statement was a notable event in the public discussion preceding the reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The 2019 video shows Dymovsky in a taxi going through Novorossiysk to the police department in order to voluntarily surrender the explosives he found, which the police failed to pick up at his signal. Meanwhile, Dymovsky explains that he used to keep TNT at home for several years, because he “wanted to use this TNT against Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” but eventually gave up these thoughts, because he came to the conclusion that Putin was a “mentally ill person.” In the video, Dymovsky also calls on all honest people to unite and invites them to a meeting. After the video recording, Dymovsky’s car was stopped by the traffic police, and he decided to voluntarily surrender his TNT to them, and was subsequently questioned by the police. However, several days later, he was arrested and charged with illegal storage and transportation of explosives (Article 2221 part 1 of the Criminal Code). We view the charge under Article 280 of the Criminal Code as inappropriate, since the latter contains no calls for violence against the president or other officials, and the call for all honest people to unite is peaceful in its character.
In August, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Novorossiysk returned Dymovsky's case to the prosecutor; according to his lawyer, it was due to the fact that some materials, which the defense intended to use as evidence of Dymovsky's innocence, had disappeared from his file – in particular, the interrogation protocols of the taxi driver and the video operator, and a disk with the video itself, on which he announced his intention to voluntarily surrender the explosives.
Statements directed against the authorities occasionally lead to sanctions under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (incitement to hatred, enmity and humiliation of human dignity on group grounds), introduced into the Administrative Code as a result of partial decriminalization of Article 282 of the Criminal Code. Based on our information on the application of this legal norm in 2020, we view ten people as subjected to inappropriate sanctions, one of whom was punished three times. A fine was imposed in six cases, community service in two, and arrest for a period of 5 to 11 days in three cases.
The vast majority of these sanctions were triggered by crude, but not violent, statements by social media users against the law enforcement or the authorities. We regard sanctions for such statements as inappropriate. Law enforcement officials should not be considered a vulnerable social group protected by anti-extremist legislation. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted that law enforcement agencies should be extremely tolerant of criticism, unless it involves a real threat of violence. With regard to officials, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in the Resolution “On Judicial Practice in Criminal Cases Involving Crimes of an Extremist Nature” of June 28 2011 emphasized that the permissible threshold of criticism against them is higher than for private individuals.
In December, the court placed Natalia Podolyak, a resident of Krasnoyarsk, under arrest for 10 days under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (incitement to hatred). She left a comment on Facebook under the post about citizens being detained for violating the quarantine, in which she made rude statements about the police officers and the state in general and also wrote, “People and their right to freedom of movement should never be so disrespected.” Obviously, there were no calls for violence against the police in Podolyak's comment, so we regard the sanction against her as inappropriate.
The Voskresensk City Court in the Moscow Region placed activist Alexei Kholkin under arrest for five days. The Moscow Regional Court upheld this decision. Administrative case against Kholkin was based on the link to the video “Everyone Comes Out to Protest. The Government Should Resign,” which he posted on his Facebook page – intending, in the law enforcement’s opinion, to “incite hatred of government officials.” The video features a number of activists, including Vladimir Filin, Elena Rokhlina, Angelica Latsis and Kirill Myamlin – members of the Permanent Council of the National Patriotic Forces of Russia (PDS NPSR) – who criticize the policy of the Russian authorities and call for joining a protest rally. The video contains no calls for xenophobic or anti-state violence.
In August, the Taganrog City Court of the Rostov Region fined local resident Vladislav Shulga in the amount of 10 thousand rubles. An ex-employee of G.M. Beriev Aircraft Plant, Shulga is a defendant in the case related to the 2017 thallium poisoning of plant employees. He had left the following emotional comment on a Taganrog local portal: “It is not the laws that are stupid, but those who are set to enforce them are criminals! Scum are our judges, scoundrels are our policemen, and swindlers are our prosecutors.” This comment was deemed humiliating for human dignity of the government officials. Stanislav Tkachev, who left a comment “All cops are bastards, especially the First Department and investigator R.” on the same website, faced the same sanctions.”
In September, local video blogger Mikhail Alferov from Kemerovo was punished under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses three times for having published three videos, which court recognized as insulting to police officers. The court sentenced him to a fine of 15,000 rubles, 96 hours of community service and 11 days of administrative arrest.
The courts of Tatarstan over the summer punished under Article 20.3.1 three Tatar nationalists who, on October 12, 2019, addressed a rally in memory of the Kazan defenders who died during the capture of the city by the troops of Ivan the Terrible. Fauzia Bayramova, the chair of the Ittifaq party, was fined 10 thousand rubles in June; Imam Airat Shakirov received 40 hours of community service in August, and 81-year-old Galishan Nuriakhmet, the deputy chairman of the All-Tatar Public Center (Vsetatarsky Obschestvennyi Tsentr, VTOTs), was fined five thousand rubles. The sanctions were based on the statements made by the three rally participants, which differed but generally amounted to pointing out Russia's colonial policy and the need to fight colonial oppression. The law enforcement agencies and the court regarded these statements as inciting hostility towards the Russians. We do not agree with this position – in and of itself, a public expression of disagreement with the “colonial” policy of the federal and republican authorities is not the same as inciting hatred towards ethnic Russians.
Within the same paradigm of countering the “anti-colonialists,” the Supreme Court of Tatarstan recognized The Hidden History of the Tatars. The National Liberation Struggle of the Tatar People in the 16th – 18th Centuries for the Establishment of an Independent State, a book by the writer and journalist Vakhit Imamov published in 1994, as extremist in July. Imamov's book is a popular retelling of events from the history of the uprisings of the peoples of the Volga region that took place in 16th through 18th centuries; according to its annotation, the work is intended “primarily for students of schools and gymnasiums of Tatarstan as an additional textbook on the history of their native land.” The book, written in 1991, does, in fact, contain a positive assessment of the Tatars' struggle for independence and national rights and against the “colonial oppression” of Tsarist Russia. In the end of Imamov's work, he says that “the struggle to create a state independent of the Moscow dictate, which began 440 years ago, continues today.” This statement accurately reflects the situation in the early 1990s, when the new status of the republics of the former USSR was being determined. All this, in our opinion, did not provide any grounds for banning the book as extremist today.
It should be noted, however, that the expression of a diametrically opposite opinion can also lead to sanctions. Thus, in July, Mikhail Scheglov, the chairman of the Russian Culture Society, was fined 10 thousand rubles; the Supreme Court of Tatarstan upheld this decision in August. The statements, for which Scheglov was punished, he made in an open letter to Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of Tatarstan. Opposing church closures related to the coronavirus, Scheglov noted that such a ban on the part of the authorities looks “not as concern for people's health, but as a form of theomachy and new persecution of Christians” taking place “in the very center of Orthodox Russia,” which is “deeply symbolic for a “national” republic with its definite numerical preponderance of the non-Orthodox officials.” In essence, Scheglov’s words constitute criticism of the actions of the authorities, which he regarded as unfair with respect to the Orthodox believers. Even if we interpret these statements as creating a negative image of the Muslims, who allegedly abuse their dominant position in the government of Tatarstan, they can only be qualified as a mild case of hate speech, which, in our opinion, does not present sufficient grounds for sanctions.
One such case, opened in 2019, was discontinued in February; it had been filed under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses against video blogger Pavel Sychev. He was charged for publishing a video, back in 2019, about the “Let’s Regain the Right to Vote” rally that took place in August. The video discussed violence by the National Guard of Russia against the demonstrators and the fact that the security forces were not wearing their identity badges. Sychev used harsh characterizations with respect to law enforcement officers, but did not call for violence against them. A linguistic examination conducted by experts at the Voronezh Regional Center for Forensic Examination of the Ministry of Justice concluded that “the National Guardsmen of the Russian Federation are not a social group,” and that “there are no linguistic and psychological signs of humiliation or incitement to enmity” in Sychev’s video.
As we indicated above, we view sanctions imposed for calls for the separation of a particular territory from Russia as inappropriate, unless the calls are for violent separatism. We also would like to note that, in accordance with the amendments made to the legislation in December 2020, Article 2801 applies only to calls made again within a year after being held accountable for an administrative offence. Therefore, criminal cases under this article that were in court at the time the amendment was adopted are subject to closure, and prior sentences made under it must be reviewed. In addition, convictions under it must be expunged unless they expire by December 2020.
In August, the Central District Military Court in Samara sentenced Airat Dilmukhametov, an activist of the Bashkir national movement, to nine years in a maximum-security penal colony with a three-year ban on administering websites. The verdict, which we consider inappropriate, was issued under Article 280.1 Part 2 of the Criminal Code for publication on the internet of calls for violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. The charges of separatism were based on Dilmukhametov’s video address in which he announced his intention to win the elections for the head of Bashkortostan and then initiate the renegotiation of a federal agreement between the subjects of the Russian Federation on new conditions. Dilmukhametov did not speak about secession from Russia, his plans looked rather abstract, and he proposed or made no specific steps to implement his program, let alone any calls for achieving it by violent methods. Nevertheless, he was found guilty not only under the article on separatism, but also under Article 2823 Part 1 (financing of extremist activities); the court found that Dilmukhametov was trying to collect funds via the Internet “to support the struggle for the new IV Bashkir Republic.”
In January, a criminal case under Article 2801 of the Criminal Code was opened against Rashid Maisigov, an Ingush activist and a former editor of the FortangaORG portal. Maisigov was charged for his Instagram post, made in February of 2019, in which he called on the population of Ingushetia to secede from Russia and join Georgia, and on the Georgian leadership and the world community to support such a step. In addition, the investigation claimed that he had also posted leaflets in Nazran and Magas that called on other states to issue passports to all residents of the republic. The charge was dropped in January 2021 due to the above-mentioned change in legislation.
In September, a citizen of Ukraine born in 1998 was detained in Crimea for distributing in the cities of the peninsula the leaflets with calls “to take actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” The young man was arrested as a defendant under Article 2801 Part 1 of the Criminal Code; leaflets of the indicated content were confiscated from him. According to the investigators, the young man was a member of the “Ukrainian Resistance in Crimea” VKontakte community, which shared various materials criticizing the annexation of Crimea to Russia and calling for its return to Ukraine. We found no calls for violent actions among the community’s posts we were able to access.
We classify as inappropriate a number of sentences passed by Russian courts in 2020 under Article 2052 of the Criminal Code that covers propaganda of terrorism. Several of them are associated, once again, with harsh anti-government rhetoric.
The 2nd Western District Military Court in Kursk found Sergei Lavrov guilty under Article 2052 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for terrorism on the Internet) in May and sentenced him to five years in a minimum-security penal colony with loss of the right to administer websites for two and a half years. In addition, Lavrov was ordered to undergo involuntary mental health treatment. The investigation argued, and the court agreed, that Lavrov had called for “carrying out terrorist activities by forcibly seizing power” on his VKontakte page. He was charged for eight posts, one of which talked about a military coup, and the other seven criticized the “anti-national” and “occupation” government, “unfair elections,” and the president of Russia. One of them called for a “military tribunal over the anti-national Putin regime.” In several of these texts Lavrov expressed confidence that a “people's revolution” was inevitable in Russia. In our opinion, only the first post we mentioned could be viewed as a direct call for violent activity. The rest of his publications contained no signs of justifying terrorism or calls for it. Although law enforcement agencies had a formal reason to prosecute Lavrov, we consider the punishment imposed on him disproportionately severe. Moreover, we do not consider criminal prosecution against Lavrov necessary; more lenient measures could have been sufficient, given the insignificant audience of his page and publications.
In October, the same Court issued a sentence against Mikhail Sharygin, a resident of Nizhny Novgorod. The ex-candidate for the city Duma from Yabloko was found guilty of public calls for terrorism committed on the Internet and sentenced to a fine of 400 thousand rubles. Sharygin published a comment on NN.ru, in which he suggested blowing up the fence around a construction site. The fence inconvenienced local residents, and the guards on the construction site prevented ambulances from passing through to the houses, but the developer never dismantled the fence, ignoring the official order. The court, based on the expert opinion, decided that Sharygin, in his commentary, was setting the local residents against the city authorities as two sides of the socio-political conflict, and that he also outlined the way to influence the authorities (by blowing up the fence) – that is, called for a terrorist attack. We believe that this qualification is incorrect. On the one hand, the objective side of terrorist attack as a crime is characterized by the intent to intimidate the population – but we have no reason to assume that such an explosion would have frightened the population. On the other hand, the socio-political motivation for such an action is also far from obvious, since the situation can be more appropriately characterized as a local economic dispute. Accordingly, the unauthorized demolition of the fence, if it ever took place, would have to be qualified under Article 167 of the Criminal Code (intentional destruction or damage to property) or Article 330 of the Criminal Code (arbitrariness), and calling for it should have been qualified as incitement to destruction of property or as arbitrariness, but not a call to perform a terrorist attack.
In July 2020, at a visiting session in the Pskov Regional Court, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Western District Military Court found journalist Svetlana Prokopieva guilty of justifying terrorism via mass media under Article 2052 Part 2 of the Criminal Code and sentenced her to a fine of 500 thousand rubles as well as covering the costs of expert examinations and confiscation of her mobile phone and laptop. In February 2021, this decision was upheld by the Military Court of Appeal and entered into force. The prosecution was based on Prokopieva's radio show “A Minute of Enlightenment,” aired in the fall of 2018 on the Echo of Moscow in Pskov radio station and dedicated to the causes of the explosion at the FSB office lobby in Arkhangelsk on October 31, 2018. Analyzing this incident, Prokopieva argued that the actions of a young man, who had committed the explosion, stemmed from the repressive policies of the state, and that young people growing up in the atmosphere of state-sanctioned brutality were at risk of responding to the state in the same manner. The show contained no statements to indicate that the ideology or practice of terrorism was correct and deserved to be imitated and never claimed it to be attractive or appropriate.
One new case should be pointed out – a charge under Article 2052 Part 1 of the Criminal Code was brought against Darya Polyudova, an activist of the Left Resistance (Levoe Soprotivlenie) movement, based on a video recording saved on Polyudova's phone. In the video, she, in a conversation with a fellow activist, commented on the armed attack against the FSB building on Lubyanka Street in Moscow organized by Yevgeny Manyurov on December 19, 2019. According to the investigation, Polyudova’s statements in approval of Manyurov's actions could be heard by people around her. It must be taken into consideration, however, that the objective aspect of the crime under Article 2052 of the Criminal Code implies that statements are made publicly, that is, addressed to a group or an indefinitely wide circle of people. However, in this case, it is unclear whether anyone, except for her interlocutor, heard or could have heard Polyudova's words. Even if someone did hear them, such people were obviously few in number. The subjective aspect of the crime, meanwhile, is characterized by a direct intention. If the conversation in question was private, not intended for prying ears, then it follows that Polyudova had no criminal intent in this case. It is worth noting that, even prior to facing this charge, in January 2020, she was put in pre-trial detention as a defendant on charges under Articles 2801 Part 1 and Article 2052 Part 2 of the Criminal Code based on her video interview and social networks posts with calls for separatism, including armed separatism. 
We have serious doubts about the legality of a verdict for publications, which cannot be said to have a direct anti-government character. The verdict was issued by the 2nd Western District Military Court in June under Article 2052 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. Aitakhaji Khalimov, a 27-year-old resident of Kaliningrad, was sentenced to three and a half years of imprisonment in a minimum-security penal colony. The prosecution was based on the fact that Khalimov had reposted three clips about the First Chechen War on his VKontakte page. We doubt the appropriateness of the verdict against Khalimov. In our opinion, the videos do, in fact, positively evaluate and romanticize the actions of the militants, specifically their military actions, but they say nothing about terrorist attacks. At the same time, these materials contain no calls for continuation of the armed separatist activities in Chechnya. It should also be borne in mind that the First Chechen War ended with the signing of peace agreements, and the separatists were not held legally accountable for their actions; therefore, it is not clear why the justification of those, already historical, events as a separatist rebellion should be equated with justification or propaganda of terrorism and fall under Article 2052 of the Criminal Code. If law enforcement agencies view glorification of the First Chechen War as dangerous, they should have chosen appropriate arguments and qualified Khalimov’s actions accordingly. In addition, we regard the real prison term of three and a half years in a minimum-security penal colony as an excessively severe punishment for speech.
In 2020, we became aware of 34 cases of liability under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in different regions of Russia for distributing the banned video about unfulfilled campaign promises of the United Russia party, “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny (we recorded 31 such case in 2019). The courts issued fines ranging from one to three thousand rubles. The Belgorod Region is still in the lead with 13 people sanctioned. Law enforcement agencies actively monitor the distribution of this video, because it can be easily found on social networks, and “preventive measures” in the form of administrative sanctions against opposition-minded Internet users can be imposed without much effort. We would like to remind that the content of the notorious video, recognized as extremist in 2013, merely lists a number of unfulfilled campaign promises from the 2002 United Russia party manifesto and calls to vote for any party other than the ruling party. We view the prohibition of this video and sanctions for its distribution as inappropriate.
We know about inappropriate sanctions against eight activists across the political spectrum under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for using the swastika as a means of political criticism in oppositional posts; one activist faced charges on three separate occasions. Five activists were punished with administrative arrests; fines were levied in four cases.
In August, the Vologda City Court fined Yevgeny Domozhirov, a known local activist, two thousand rubles. The sanction was based on a video “They Destroy. Real Fascists,” which Domozhirov posted on his personal VKontakte page in May. In the video, the activist complained about the clearing of the park, in which the trees had been planted by the World War II veterans, and stated that the local authorities behaved “like real fascists both with respect to the veterans and to this memory.” The video featured images of Governor Oleg Kuvshinnikov and Mayor Sergei Voropanov, edited to add Nazi caps to their heads. In this case, as in many similar ones, the swastika was used as a visual means of criticizing the authorities – as a symbol of a “criminal regime.”
Activist Liana Timerkhanova from Kazan was fined two thousand rubles for posting on VKontakte an image, which depicted Artyom Khokhorin, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tatarstan, as Adolf Hitler with the Nazi arm band.
Activist Albert Gerasimov, a member of the United Communist Party from Penza, was fined 2,000 rubles for a post on VKontakte, in which he wrote that, in 1936, American black runner Jesse Owens was admitted to the Berlin Olympics, while, in modern Russia, Alexei Navalny was deprived of the opportunity to participate in the presidential election. The post was accompanied by a photo of Hitler with a swastika on his sleeve. A month later, Gerasimov was brought to court again for failure to delete his post. A fine was imposed, but not upheld by the regional court. Meanwhile, however, Gerasimov was once again brought to responsibility for the same publication, placed under arrest for 10 days, and the regional court upheld this decision.
Local opposition activist Grigory Severin was put under arrest for 12 days in Voronezh. The case was based on five images with Nazi symbols published on VKontakte between January 2014 and May 2020. These included a photo of the 1939 badge, depicting the swastika, which symbolized the friendship of Germany and the USSR, and a cartoon depicting President Vladimir Putin as a Nazi. Severin stated in court that he considered himself an anti-fascist and did not want Russia to look like Nazi Germany.
In Vladivostok, the court placed the activist Gia (Georgy) Kakabadze under arrest for seven days for posting collages with Vladimir Putin in Nazi uniform on Instagram.
All these cases clearly illustrate that the note on exceptions added to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in March 2020, has failed to prevent all the instances of its misuse; there are still many of them.
In 2020, citizens were brought to responsibility at least 30 times under Article 20.1 Parts 3–5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for dissemination of online information expressing in indecent form disrespect for the society and the state. A year earlier, there were at least 56 such cases, i.e. the trend that was observed in the second half of 2019 remained – the norm has been applied less frequently. Fines were imposed in 21 cases (one person was fined three times; another person was fined twice), arrest – in one case (repeated offense), proceedings were discontinued in five cases, the outcome of two cases is unknown, and one fine was imposed outside of our review period in early 2021. Almost all cases pertained to disrespect for the authorities – most often directed against the president, but also against officials, police officers, or judges. It is worth noting that, although initially the norm was supposed to apply specifically to obscene statements, in fact it is increasingly used when Internet users simply make rude or harsh statements, for example, call Vladimir Putin a fascist or a thief.
In August–September, the Leninsky District Court of Chelyabinsk found two eighteen-year-old activists of the Other Russia party guilty of involvement in the activities of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP). Artyom Golubev was issued a four-year suspended sentence with a four-year probationary period under Article 2822 Parts 1 and 1.1 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization and recruitment into it). Mikhail Prosvirnin received a three-year suspended sentence and Alexander Kryshka – a suspended sentence of two and a half years, both under Article 2822 Part 2 (participating in the activities of an extremist organization). According to the investigation, in April 2020, these three members of the Other Russia attacked a monument to the Czechoslovak Legion soldiers in Chelyabinsk, on which the defendants inflicted several blows with a sledgehammer, while unfurling the banner “You Shall Pay for Konev!” This action, as well as their alleged attempt to set fire to the Leninsky District Police Department of Chelyabinsk in protest against the beating and rape of a detainee that took place there in May, was interpreted as a continuation of the NBP's activities. We consider inappropriate both the ban against the NBP and prosecutions against activists for participating in it, and believe the actions attributed to the activists should have been qualified under other articles.
Also in August, the Leninsky District Court of Perm found Alexander Shabarchin and Danila Vasilyev guilty of hooliganism committed by an organized group (Article 213 Part 2 of the Criminal Code); the third defendant, Alexander Etkin (Kotov), was acquitted. In November, the Perm Regional Court of Appeals mitigated the punishment for Alexander Shabarchin to a two year suspended sentence instead of two years in a minimum-security colony. Danila Vasilyev was issued a one year suspended sentence by a lower court. The case was initiated in connection with a public action conducted in November 2018 – a dummy appeared on a Perm street, representing Putin dressed in a prison uniform emblazoned with the words “liar” and “war criminal Pynya V.V.” In a video that was subsequently posted on the “Groza Permi” YouTube channel, people in camouflage uniforms escorted a man in a Putin mask through the Perm city center and then tied a dummy, with the president's photograph for a face, to a post near the local central department store. The initial charge included the motive of hatred against Putin's supporters as a social group. However, the court excluded the social hatred motive from the charges – in our opinion, quite appropriately. We believe that in order to avoid such nonsensical cases, the concept of a social group, which has no precise definition, should be excluded from the legislative norms. In general, we believe that the investigation did not have sufficient grounds to qualify the tying of the dummy to the post as hooliganism, that is, a gross violation of public order.
In mid-June, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow issued a two-year suspended sentence with three years of probation and additional restriction of freedom for six months in the case of Vyacheslav Gorbaty. The retiree from Chernogolovka in the Moscow Region was an activist of the Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (IGPR “ZOV”). The verdict was approved by the Moscow City Court in August. Gorbaty was found guilty of participating in the activities of the extremist organization Army of People’s Will (Armia Voli Naroda, AVN) under Article 2822 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. Materials of the case were in 2016 separated from the case of Yuri Mukhin (the ideologist of the AVN and IGPR “ZOV”) and his associates Alexander Sokolov and Valery Parfenov. The investigation claimed that Gorbaty had served as the leader of a cell of the banned organization in the Moscow Region and had collected 143 thousand rubles for its activities, but the charge under Article 2823 of the Criminal Code for financing of extremist activities was dropped in February due to expiry of the limitation period. The case under Article 2822 of the Criminal Code went to court in October 2018 and was initially returned to the prosecutor, but, in May 2019, Gorbaty was charged anew. Army of People’s Will – an organization of the Stalinist-nationalist kind repeatedly implicated in xenophobic propaganda – was recognized as extremist in 2010. We view this decision as inappropriate since it was based solely on the ban of the leaflet You have elected – You are to judge! (Ty izbral – tebe sudit), which we consider unfounded. Accordingly, we also view sentences under Article 2822 against the activists of IGPR “ZOV” (as the AVN’s successor) as inappropriate.
In August, the Supreme Court satisfied the claim of the General Prosecutor's Office and recognized the Prisoners Criminal Unity (Arestantskoe Ugolovnoe Yedinstvo, AUE) movement as extremist. In its claim, the Prosecutor General's Office indicated that “AUE is a well-structured and managed organization,” whose members “are involved, among other things, in organizing mass riots,” and the ideology “poses a real threat to the life and health of citizens, the society and the state.” In our opinion, the decision to ban AUE as an extremist organization was not entirely justified. First, we do not agree that AUE is a single structure. Next, although the ideology of the underworld (and the AUE subculture) is focused on illegal activities and conceptually incompatible with respect for the constitutional rights of citizens, this ideology is not political and is not aimed at changing the constitutional order. Therefore, we believe that the activity of promoting this ideology should not be the subject to anti-extremist legal regulation, although it can be criminalized in principle. Perhaps a new criminal norm should have been created for the organizers of structures that exploit criminality and incite violence close in composition to Article 239 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (creation of a public association whose activity is fraught with violence against individuals).
Recognizing AUE as an extremist organization gave the authorities the opportunity to prosecute for the dissemination of the AUE ideology and symbols under anti-extremist articles – Article 2822 of the Criminal Code and Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The first case of application of Article 2822 of the Criminal Code was only reported to us in 2021. But Article 20.3 was utilized against AUE followers probably hundreds of times throughout 2020 for online dissemination of criminal symbols as well as, for example, for tattoos with the corresponding images. We view such persecution as unreasonable, since these actions, in reality, do not signify support of any structure, but rather belonging to a criminal subculture – unfortunately, a very popular one in Russia due to the fact that a large number of its citizens have passed through the penitentiary system. The effectiveness of such sanctions also raises doubts, since it obviously drives the criminal subculture underground, exacerbating the isolation of its followers from the society, while they need help in resocialization and adaptation.
Beginning in May 2020, a series of criminal cases were initiated under Article 3541 Parts 1 and 3 of the Criminal Code that covers the rehabilitation of Nazism (denial of the facts established by the Nuremberg Tribunal, or approval of Nazi crimes and dissemination of information expressing obvious disrespect to society about the days and symbols of Russia’s military glory) for attempts to upload photographs of the Third Reich leaders or famous collaborators (in particular, Adolf Hitler and Andrei Vlasov, but under different names) to the websites of the Immortal Regiment movement on the eve of May 9, the Victory Day. Apparently, in all cases the offense consisted only of submitting photographs; the images did not, in fact, get onto the sites, since they were filtered out during pre-moderation. We believe that the actions of the internet users were qualified incorrectly.
An action such as uploading photographs of Nazi leaders to a website, even on the commemorative day of May 9, in and of itself, constitutes neither a public endorsement of Nazi crimes, nor dissemination of any information about a day of Russia's military glory. Apparently, these photographs were not accompanied by any statements approving or denying Nazi crimes.
According to the Investigative Committee, the majority of the users involved in such attempts turned out to be foreigners, but over ten people were residents of different regions of Russia. As we were informed, at least 12 such criminal cases were initiated in 2020 against the following people: Andrei Shabanov from Samara, Denis Vorontsov from Volgograd, Vyacheslav Kruglov from Ulyanovsk, Muhammad El-Ayyubi from Kazan, Daniil Shestakov, Daniil Simanov and Maxim Gusev from Perm, Dmitry Borodaenko from Kemerovo, Yevgeny Akhmylov from Chita, a resident of Tula, a resident of Nyurbinsky District of Yakutia and Alexander Khoroshiltsev from Voronezh.
Verdicts were issued in six such cases:
- In September, the Perm Regional Court found 19-year-old student Daniil Simanov guilty based on the fact that, on May 4, 2020, Simanov, using a social network application, sent a photo of Andrei Vlasov to the Memory Bank website to be included in the “Immortal Regiment Online” action. He was sentenced under Article 3541 Part 3 to 200 hours of community service with the confiscation of his computer.
- Also in September, the Ulyanovsk Regional Court sentenced local resident Vyacheslav Kruglov under Article 30 Part 3 and Article 3541 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for an attempt to post a photo of Hitler on the Memory Bank website to a fine of 120 thousand rubles on a 12-month installment plan.
- In October, the Zabaikalsky Regional Court fined Yevgeny Akhmylov, a teacher in a Chita Polytechnic College, 150 thousand rubles under Article 3541 Part 3 of the Criminal Code for an attempt to upload a photograph of Ataman Pyotr Krasnov to the Immortal Regiment website.
- In November, the Perm Regional Court found Daniil Shestakov guilty under Article 3541 Part 3 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to nine months of community service for submitting photos of Andrei Vlasov as a part of the Immortal Regiment Online Campaign.
- In December, the Supreme Court of Tatarstan found Muhammed El-Ayyubi, a 21-old student from Kazan, guilty under Article 3541 Part 1 and Article 228 Part 1 (illegal possession of narcotic substances) of the Criminal Code; he received a suspended sentence of one year of imprisonment and had to pay a 150 thousand rubles fine. El-Ayyubi submitted Hitler’s photo to the Memory Bank website.
- Kemerovo resident Dmitry Borodaenko was sentenced in the same month by the Kemerovo Regional Court under Article 30 Part 3 and Article 3541 Part 1 to a fine of 120 thousand rubles – also for submitting the photo of Hitler to the Memory Bank website.
Yet another case on disseminating information about the days of Russia’s military glory and memorable dates that expressed clear disrespect toward the society was opened in January and closed in June 2020. It was the case of blogger Nikolai Gorelov from Kaliningrad (writing under pen name Kirichenko), who, on May 9, 2018, published on his VKontakte page the text of his own composition, in which fictional representatives of different countries and social strata as well as real historical characters “thanked” the Red Army in observance of the Victory Day. Some characters talked about their suffering inflicted either directly by or with the assistance of the Red Army; others tell how, thanks to the Red Army, they succeeded in committing atrocities. The text is obviously political and partly satirical; it suggests that readers take a critical look at the military operations of the Soviet Union, but never condoned Nazism.
In addition, a case under Article 3541 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (public desecration of the symbols of Russia’s military glory) was opened in July against blogger Mikhail Alferov from Kemerovo, based on a video posted by Alferov on YouTube on May 9, 2020. In the video, Alferov criticized, in harsh terms, the opulent decoration of the city for the Victory Day, which contrasted with the unsatisfactory condition of residential buildings. The blogger also expressed his dissatisfaction with the use of St. George ribbon and demanded that police officers remove it from their uniform. In our opinion, statements about certain symbols, even if regarded as offensive, should not be equated with desecrating the symbol itself (by the way, the very concept of “symbols of military glory” is not clarified in Russian legislation).
A criminal case under the same part of the same article was opened in mid-September against an activist of the Citizens of the USSR movement from Krasnoyarsk, who posted on his VKontakte page “the swastika photoshopped from a St. George ribbon” with the caption “the flag worthy of the state.” By publishing this image the Krasnoyarsk resident obviously did not seek to justify the Nazi ideology or to desecrate the St. George ribbon as a symbol of military glory – most likely, the publication was intended as a critical statement about the politics of modern Russia.
According to statistics provided by the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court, there were 1052 cases of punishment under Article 20.3 in the first half of 2020, compared to 2388 cases for the entire 2019 . These numbers indicate that the total for this year might be lower than the year before, but a sharp decrease in application of this article is unlikely.
As usual, we know the details of the corresponding administrative cases and can assess their appropriateness only for some of these incidents. We recorded more cases of inappropriate persecution in 2020 than in 2019. People faced sanctions without proper grounds on at least 44 occasions, according to our information (we counted 31 such cases in 2019), with 43 cases pertaining to individuals and one to a legal entity; the defendants included activists, representatives of small businesses, and ordinary social media users. A fine is known to be imposed in 27 cases, administrative arrest in 10, six out of 44 were dismissed, and the outcome of the remaining two is unknown to us. Evidently, an introduction of a note to Article 20.3 stating that the article does not apply to cases, in which negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism and extremism is being formed, and there are no signs of propaganda or justification of Nazi or extremist ideology, could not fundamentally improve the situation and reduce the application of sanctions only to cases, in which banned symbols were actually displayed in order to promote a dangerous ideology. Past enforcement problems persist, and the 2020 cases differ little from those of the preceding year.
The sanctions against antiques dealers under Article 20.3 for advertising the Third Reich items with Nazi symbols continue; we became aware of six such cases in 2020. We believe that this article should be applied primarily not to antique dealers, but to modern manufacturers of items with Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols (badges, clothing, copies of weapons, etc.) and distributors of such products. In addition, in our opinion, the confiscation of goods is unjustified in such cases, since for the seller antiques are objects of material value, and not a propaganda tool.
The Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky City Court sentenced local resident Yevgeny Barkov, to a fine of one thousand rubles twice. Barkov posted two advertisements on Avito for the sale of two German objects from the Third Reich period – a medal and a badge. These artifacts contained Nazi symbols and, according to the court orders, were subject to confiscation as tools of an administrative offense. Barkov filed complaints against the rulings with the Kamchatka Regional Court, indicating that he posted ads with photos of Nazi paraphernalia not for the purpose of propagating Nazism, but with the intention of selling it. However, the court upheld the earlier rulings. In one of the decisions, the regional court came to the conclusion that Barkov's lack of propaganda intent did not give grounds for his release from liability, since any actions that make attributes and symbols “accessible for observation by other persons, including by publishing them in the media – the category to which the Avito website certainly belongs” may be defined as an offense; the court also referred to the position of the Constitutional Court stated in 2014 that the use of Nazi paraphernalia, regardless of its genesis, could cause suffering to people whose relatives died during the Great Patriotic War. In its decision on Barkov’s second complaint, the court noted that his actions did not fit any of the exceptions established by law, since the announcement did not contain “explanations that would form a negative attitude towards the ideology of Nazism.”
As before, several left-wing activists who consistently adhere to anti-fascist views became victims of persecution under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses in 2020. Thus, Lev Burlakov, the administrator of the “Levomarginal” public page on VKontakte, was placed under arrest for 10 days in Naberzhnye Chelny. The incriminating materials included three posts of his authorship (a meme with an NSDAP congress photo ridiculing the dogmatic perception of Marxism, an image with Nazi symbols shared from the community “These Funny Offended Rightists,” and a critical post with a photo from the Russian March in Yekaterinburg) as well as five comments from other users. In Tatarstan, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court has sentenced Denis Belov, a member of the Marxists Union, to 14 days of administrative arrest based on several posts on his VKontakte page. Some of his anti-fascist posts contained Nazi symbols, and the series of images with black and red anarcho-communist symbols (which the law enforcement and the court may have misinterpreted as symbols of the banned Right Sector).
The sanctions for the use of the swastika in a satirical or historical context, or in informational materials, still continue as well.
We learned in December, that, in Dankov of the Lipetsk Region, Sergei Korablin was fined a thousand rubles under Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for posting, back in 2010, on his VKontakte page an episode from the South Park animated series, in which one of the characters comes to school on Halloween in a Hitler costume with the swastika on his shoulder; the horrified teacher tries to rectify the situation by dressing the boy as a ghost, but the outfit ends up looking like a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Lipetsk resident Artyom Barsukovsky was fined the same amount for a comment in a local VKontakte community he left underneath the news about the introduction of a mask regime in shops in the Lipetsk region. The commentary contained a video of Hitler's speech, which was overlaid with an audio recording of Ramzan Tutaev, the deputy imam of one of Chechnya's mosques, imploring people not to go outside without masks and gloves (in the spring of 2020, the video with Tutaev’s appeal gained viral popularity and spawned a number of memes). The swastika is visible on Hitler's sleeve in the video. Barsukovsky said in court that he posted the video “in order to ridicule the current situation in the region in connection with the epidemiological situation with the coronavirus,” and therefore, in his case, it would be appropriate to apply a note to Article 20.3, but the court decided that this argument was based on a misinterpretation of the law.
In some cases, however, the note to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses does get taken into account. In the Alikovsky District of the Chuvash Republic, the police refused to open an administrative case under Article 20.3 against Galina Ivanova, a teacher in the Bolshevylskoe village Secondary School. A participant in an amateur play about the Second World War, Ivanova posted on a social network her photo in a scout costume standing next to another participant, who played a HiPo member and wore a Nazi swastika on his sleeve. A photo was reported to the police by a lawyer and former Deputy Grigory Mikhailov, who was in conflict with the school principal (a chairman of the Deputies Assembly). However, the police found no offense in the actions of the teacher, who, nevertheless, has deleted the image from her page.
The Russian courts have no uniform tactics in applying the amendment. A court in Novokuznetsk of the Kemerovo Region imposed a fine of one thousand rubles upon Yevgeny Zabelin, a member of the Essence of Time (Sut’ vremeni) movement, who posted a photograph with Nazi symbols on his VKontakte page in the fall of 2014. The image in question was an illustration to a LiveJournal post dedicated to the connection between philosopher Alexander Dugin and Golden Dawn, a far-right party in Greece. The post characterized this connection as reprehensible. The sanctions were based on the fact that one of the Golden Dawn propaganda materials mentioned in the post contained a photo of Rudolf Hess with a swastika-decorated armband. Zabelin tried to appeal this decision, but the Kemerovo Regional Court approved the fine. Meanwhile, Pavel Guryanov, a former activist of the same movement from Perm, was able to successfully invoke the amendment to Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. A report was compiled against him based on his 2016 LiveJournal post about the visit by a Foreign Policy journalist to the Azov Regiment training camp in Ukraine; the material was illustrated with photos featuring Azov insignia such as the Wolfsangel symbol formerly used by the Nazis. Guryanov said that he did not pursue the goal of advocating Nazism – on the contrary, his publication was anti-fascist in its intent. The district court agreed with him and ruled to dismiss his case.
It is worth noting that the courts made decisions to terminate proceedings in absurd cases of displaying the swastika both before and after the clarifying note was added to Article 20.3 in March 2020.
In the summer, the case of a 16-year-old teenager was terminated in Voronezh. The charges, filed in February, were based on materials shared on his VKontakte page, including the Tom and Jerry meme (where they personify the Third Reich and the USSR in World War II, and the characters are labeled with the corresponding Soviet and Nazi insignia), an amateur video of Rammstein’s song “Heute Nacht,” and a fragment from Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglourious Basterds, in which Hitler hits the table and shouts “Nein, nein, nein!” The case filed against Irina Shumilova, a 19-year-old activist of the Left Block, for sharing the same Tom and Jerry video in March, was also dropped in the summer. In February, that is, before the amendments were adopted, the courts overturned the previously imposed sanctions in two cases of publishing the Tom and Jerry videos on VKontakte – the case of Vladislav Shenets in Kaliningrad and of minor Stepan L. in Kursk.
Note to Article 20.3 could well be applied to the cases of demonstrating the so-called Svarog square reported to us in 2020. This neo-pagan symbol was previously used by Northern Brotherhood (Severnoe bratstvo), a nationalist organization appropriately declared extremist in 2012. Accordingly, the demonstration of the Svarog square became punishable under Article 20.3. Now, the history of the Northern Brotherhood is unlikely to be widely known, while the Svarog square is a rather popular symbol in nationalist and neo-pagan circles; it is not hard to find people displaying it. In Moscow, the court fined TV anchor Yevgeny Kolesov 1,000 rubles and Power of the Law (Sila zakona) – the public organization engaged in the fight against swindlers, of which Kolesov is one of the founders – 10,000 rubles for using the Svarog square in the logo on the organization's website. Kolesov stated that he used this sign because he views it as an ancient Slavic amulet, but the court was not convinced. We found no evidence of the propaganda of the Northern Brotherhood ideology in the activities of Kolesov or his organization; most likely, he knew nothing about the existence of such an organization, its symbols, or the ban against it. The same can be said about Khabarovsk activist Rostislav Smolensky, the owner of a well-known campaign car covered with slogans in support of Sergei Furgal, the arrested former governor of the Khabarovsk Krai. Smolensky was placed under arrest for 10 days in Vladivostok, because, during his live Instagram broadcast from his Furgalomobile, the camera showed the rear-view mirror decorated with a cross and two neo-pagan amulets, one of them in the shape of a Svarog square. We believe that in both of the above cases the courts should have taken into account that the symbols were displayed without any intent to promote a banned organization.
As in the previous year, the charges of public insult against the feelings of believers were mostly applied to sharing of atheistic images on social media. It is worth reminding that we see no need to prosecute people for publishing such materials, even crude ones, unless they contain aggressive appeals against believers. In our point of view, such publications pose no danger to society, and sanctions for their dissemination can be regarded as unjustified interference with freedom of expression with respect to religion. In addition, we are convinced that the concept of “insulting the feelings of believers” introduced into texts of Article 148 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code have no clear legal meaning at all and should be excluded from the legislation.
In March, a court in Voronezh court issued a guilty verdict in the case of a local resident charged with insulting the feelings of believers and distributing child pornography on the Internet; we have no information about the punishment imposed. The charge under Article 148 of the Criminal Code is associated with the publication on VKontakte of an image depicting “naked saints.” We had no opportunity to review the image posted by the Voronezh resident, but we believe that, if the publication contained insults against representatives of any religion or incited hatred towards them, then these actions should have been qualified under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses; otherwise, he should not have been punished at all.
In August, it became known that the case of a 30-year-old resident of Kiselevsk in the Kemerovo Region charged under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code was forwarded to court. According to the investigation, he published materials on the Internet that offended Muslims, Islam and the attributes of this religion. We have no information on the outcome of this case.
In late October, a criminal case was opened in the Oryol region under Article 148 Part 1 against a resident of the Verkhovsky district. The investigation claims that, in April 2020, he wrote a comment on VKontakte that insulted the feelings of believers; the content of the comment has not been reported.
The investigation of a criminal case under Article 148 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers, committed in places specially designed for worship) was completed in Chita in November. An 18-year-old male Chita resident became a suspect for recording a TikTok video, in which he entered the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and, crossing himself, lit up his cigarette from a church candle. After the video leaked to the media, he apologized for it three times. Although the young man violated the accepted rules of conduct in the church, his actions in the church, judging by the video, caused no damage to the objects of worship and did not attract anyone's attention. Thus, in this case Article 148 Part 2 was applied inappropriately.
A magistrates’ court in Surgut fined local resident Nikolai Sokurov 30 thousand rubles in September under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (intentional public desecration of religious or liturgical symbols and attributes). The case was based on Sokurov's VKontakte posts made in 2016–2018. The report mentioned “about ten images connected to religious themes in one way or another”; the ones that were specifically listed were satirical in nature and did not incite hatred. The report also mentioned the video “Orthodox Economy. Such News #73,” published on the Radio Liberty YouTube channel and critical of Russia’s economic policy. In our opinion, posting atheist pictures and videos online should not, in and of itself, be interpreted as desecrating objects of religious veneration, since publication of photo collages does not imply any active actions performed with the objects. It should be noted that the concept of “desecration” has never been defined in the legislation.
According to our information, at least 43 inappropriate verdicts against 88 people were issued in 2019 on charges of involvement in the activities of banned organizations (vs. 26 such verdicts against 92 persons in the preceding year). The majority of cases known to us pertained to religious organizations.
Twelve sentences were imposed under the Criminal Code articles that cover organizing activities of a terrorist organization, participating or involving others in it, and they all related to the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia as a terrorist organization, despite the absence of any information about its involvement in terrorist activities. 31 people were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment – from five to 23 years in a maximum or super-maximum security colony, in some cases with part of the term to be served in prison, and various additional restrictions (we do not specify them below). One defendant was acquitted. For comparison, a year earlier we recorded 14 sentences against 52 people.
The largest number of followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir convicted in 2020 – 18 people – were from Tatarstan:
- Artur Valov and Niyaz Ziyattinov were sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment under Article 2051 Part 1.1 of the Criminal Code (financing of terrorism) and Article 2055 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (participating in the activities of a terrorist organization);
- Ten more people received various terms of imprisonment: Ilnar Zyalilov was sentenced to 22 years under Article 2055 Part 1 (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization), 2051 Part 1 (involvement of a person for committing terrorist activities) and Article 2052 Part 2 (public calls for committing of terrorist activity on the Internet); Ruslan Gabidullin and Azat Gataullin – to 19 years under the same articles; Abdukakhor Muminjanov – 17 years under Article 2055 Part 1, Article 2052 Part 1 (public calls for committing terrorist activity), Sergei Derzhipilsky – 16 years under Article 2055 Part 1; Zulfat Sabirzianov, Komil Matiev and Farid Kryev – 15 years each under Article 2055 Part 2 and Article 2052 Part 2; Rustem Salakhutdinov – 14 years under Article 2055 Part 2, and Ilnaz Safiullin – 11 years on the identical charges;
- Shamil Galimov received 17 years under Article 2055 Part 1; Ilmir Motygullin – 13 years under Article 2055 Part 2;
- Eduard Nizamov was sentenced to 23 years under 2051 Part 1, Article 2055 Part 1 in conjunction with Article 30 Part 1 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code (attempted forcible seizure of power);
- Ildar Akhmetzianov was sentenced to 17 years in prison under Article 2055 Part 1;
- Rais Gimadiev received 16 years under Article 2055 Part 1;
- Zokirzhon Ismanov, who was serving a sentence for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Altai Territory, was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment under Article 2051 Part 1.1 (recruitment into a terrorist organization) and Article 2052 Part 1 for promoting party ideas among other prisoners; his total prison term amounts to 15 years.
Ten people were convicted in Crimea:
- Bakhchisarai residents: Marlen (Suleiman) Asanov, Memet Belialov and Timur Ibragimov received 19, 18 and 17 years, respectively, under Article 2055 Part 1 and Article 278 with the use of Article 30 Part 1; Seyran Saliev – 16 years under Article 2055 Part 2 and possibly Article 2052 Part 2; Server Mustafayev, Server Zekiryaev and Edem Smailov – 14 years and 13 years, respectively, under Article 2055 Part 2 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code with Article 30 Part 1; Ernes Ametov was acquitted in this case (the first acquittal in many years in a Hizb ut-Tahrir case);
- Rustem Emiruseinov was sentenced to 17 years under Article 2055 Part 1, Arsen Abkhairov and Eskender Abdulganiev – to 13 and 12 years, respectively, under Article 2055 Part 2.
Two sentences were issued in St. Petersburg: Khokim Abdukhalimov and Muso Jalolov were sentenced to 10 years in prison under Article 2055 Part 2.
One resident of Samara was also convicted – Aleksei Botva received five years of imprisonment under Article 2055 Part 2.
The verdict against aforementioned Bashkir nationalist Airat Dilmukhametov is worth mentioning here specifically in connection with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Dilmukhametov received nine years in a maximum security colony under the aggregation of the Criminal Code articles. One of the charges under Article 2052 Part 2 (justification of terrorism) was associated with the publication of a video, on which Dilmukhametov – while criticizing rather than supporting the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir – spoke about the unjustified persecution of party supporters under terrorist articles.
Throughout 2020, law enforcement agencies opened new cases related to participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir, involving about thirty people. Seven people, including a person with the first-degree disability due to vision impairment, were arrested in different regions of Crimea; charges were brought against five more Crimean Tatars in Bakhchisarai, four of whom were placed under arrest. A resident of the village of Orlinoe near Sevastopol was charged with giving deliberately false testimony at one of the trials against Hizb ut-Tahrir followers because he withdrew his testimony against one of the defendants claiming to have given them under pressure. A new criminal case was opened against five people in Tatarstan; a Tatarstan resident convicted in 2017 and serving a 19-year sentence in the Chelyabinsk Region was charged under Article 2055 Part 2 and Article 2051 Part 1.1 for recruiting other prisoners into Hizb ut-Tahrir. Several people were reportedly detained as part of a criminal investigation into the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Kaluga Region. Two Uzbek citizens were detained in the Kaliningrad region, where, according to the FSB, they spread the party ideology among local labor migrants.
In 2020, at least two sentences against seven people were issued under Article 2822 of the Criminal Code for continuing the activities of the Tablighi Jamaat religious movement recognized as an extremist. It was banned in Russia in 2009 – inappropriately, in our opinion. This movement is engaged in the propaganda of fundamentalist Islam, but was never implicated in any calls for violence, and therefore we view persecution of its supporters as unjustified. It should be noted that many followers of Tablighi Jamaat can be found among migrant workers from the Kyrgyz Republic, where this movement is not prohibited,
- The Volzhsky District Court of Saratov issued a verdict under Article 2822 against a group of six local farmers – Radik Galimjanov, Bakhtiar Baykulov, Rustam Baykulov, Aidyngali Mindagaliev, Aslan Makhmaliev, and Mukhambetzhan Akhmetov – for their attempt to create a local Tablighi Jamaat cell and conduct preaching classes. Personalized information about the verdict is not available, but it is known that the head of the cell was convicted under Article 2822 Part 1 (organizing the activities of an extremist organization) and received three years in a minimum-security colony with restriction of freedom for a year. The remaining five offenders were found to be members of the cell and sentenced under Article 2822 Part 2 (participation in the activities of an extremist organization) – four to a year and four months in a minimum-security colony with restriction of freedom for a year, and one more – to a year in a minimum-security colony with restriction of freedom for a year.
- The Kingisepp Town Court of the Leningrad Region sentenced citizen of Kyrgyzstan Ilyasbek Toktonazarov to two years of imprisonment under Article 2822 Part 2; the regional court upheld his sentence.
New criminal cases were opened against the alleged Tablighi Jamaat followers. Six citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic were detained in Moscow and the Moscow Region as part of the investigation in a criminal case under Article 2822 Parts 1 and 2. Investigative actions under the same articles took place in the Nizhny Novgorod, Penza, Saratov and Ulyanovsk regions; several people were detained. Six Muslims were detained in the Volgograd Region; their fate is unknown. Several people detained on the same charges in Mordovia were released under travel restrictions.
As a result of the unjustified bans against the books of moderate Islamic Turkish theologian Said Nursi, which were found to promote the superiority of Islam over other religions, a decision to ban an organization known as Nurcular was made in Russia in 2008. It is worth reminding here that the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2018 that the Russian courts violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Freedom of Expression by banning Nursi's books. Russian Muslims studying Nursi's legacy do not, in fact, form a single organization, but this did not prevent the Supreme Court from banning Nurcular, which never existed in reality. Currently, Muslims reading and discussing Nursi's books can be prosecuted under Article 2822 for involvement in an extremist organization and face real terms of imprisonment. Criminal cases of this kind are initiated in Russia every year.
For example, Gabdrakhman (Albert) Naumov, a teacher at the Russian Islamic University member of the Ulema Council of the Central Muslim Spiritual Board of Russia, former imam-khatib of the Al-Iman parish of the Muhtasibat of Sovetsky and Privolzhsky Districts in Kazan, and a well-known religious figure in Tatarstan was arrested in March 2020 under Article 2822 Part 1 of the Criminal Code. Naumov denies any guilt. In Dagestan, Ibragim Murtazaliev, a resident of the village of Izberbash and a defendant in the case of Ilgar Aliev (convicted in Dagestan for involvement in Nurcular in 2018) was placed under arrest.
In late 2020, a criminal case under Article 2822 Part 1 was opened against 62-year-old Nakiya Sharifullina from Naberezhnye Chelny. According to the investigation, she gathered citizens in a safe house and, under the guise of conducting Quran and the Turkish language classes, introduced the audience to the works of Said Nursi from the Risale-i Nur collection.
Denis Zhukov was charged under Article 2822 Part 2 for participation in similar classes in Krasnoyarsk, but the Prosecutor’s Office dropped his case in the spring of 2020. The decision to dismiss the case was made on the basis of a note to Article 2822, which exempts from responsibility the persons, who committed a crime for the first time and voluntarily stopped participating in the organization, unless their actions also indicate a different corpus delicti.
In November 2020, the Prosecutor's Office of the Republic of Tatarstan filed an administrative claim with the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court to recognize 47 titles of books and multi-book series as extremist. The lawsuit addressed the total of 163 publications – the largest-ever claim to recognize literature as extremist – and includes many books by Nursi in Turkish, four of his books in Tatar and two in Russian, Islam in Modern Turkey by Mary Weld (Sükran Vahide) in Russian, and Ayats and Hadith in Risale-i Nur by Kenan Demirtaş in Turkish. These books were found in the possession of Nakia Sharifullina and of seven other female residents of Naberezhnye Chelny.
The experts examined the books in the course of Sharifullina’s criminal case and concluded that they represented “ideological sources of the religious extremist association Nurcular.” In addition, the experts decided that the examined materials (which included not only the books, but also audio recordings of the conversations of the defendants in the case) contained statements that incited religious hatred and violence to the point of destruction of the enemy, as well as promoted the idea of superiority or inferiority of citizens on the basis of their belonging to a religion. The claim provided not a single specific quote to substantiate the law enforcement claims.
In our opinion, works of Said Nursi have been banned inappropriately. As far as we know, they contain no aggressive appeals or attempts to incite violence among their readers, while statements about the truth of one religion and the falsity of others cannot serve as a basis for banning religious literature. Banning an entire list of books only on the grounds that they are related to the teachings of Nursi is even less acceptable. We also doubt the appropriateness of banning the book by Mary Weld, an admirer and a scholar of Said Nursi’s heritage, whose work is the theologian’s biography, as well as the claims against Kenan Demirtas’ work on Risale-i Nur.
In June 2020, the Almetyevsk City Court of Tatarstan recognized two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. 200 FAQ on Muslim Belief aims to clarify for Muslims a number of issues related to the understanding of doctrinal literature in terms of peaceful Salafism, espoused by its author, Hafiz al-Hakami (1924 – 1958), a theologian and a teacher who took an active part in the development of spiritual education in the south of Saudi Arabia. In our opinion, the book contains no aggressive appeals and there was no reason to ban it. Сondemnation of polytheism and disapproval of apostasy from “true Islam” as professed by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions are typical of Salafi literature, however, we see these theses as pertaining to the sphere of intra-religious polemics; such statements, in and of themselves, should not be interpreted as incitement to religious hatred.
The book Muhammad (SAW): Mercy for the Worlds. Morality of the Messenger and His Companions by Turkish politician, religious philosopher, economist and teacher Haydа́r Baş, (1947–2020) is devoted to the analysis of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad in order to identify his moral attitudes that are relevant for the modern believer. The author focuses on prophet’s generosity, kindness, modesty and restraint, which also determines the nature of his book. It might be worth noting, however, that Baş takes a harsh stand on the issue of insulting the prophet – in his opinion, this transgression deserves the death penalty. Such a belief, of course, runs counter to modern secular laws and attitudes, but the book provides no guidance on establishing a regime that would introduce the death penalty for such misconduct, and contains no explicit calls for retaliation, so we believe that this book should not have been recognized as extremist.
In August 2020, the Krasnoglinsky District Court of Samara satisfied the claim of the Samara Regional Prosecutor's Office and recognized the Russian-language editions of two authoritative interpretations of the Quran (tafsirs) as extremist. The decision was upheld by the Samara Regional Court in January 2021. The first volume of tafsir as-Sa’di and the second and third volumes of Ibn Kathir's interpretation are prohibited, with the exception of direct quotations from the Quran. As-Sa’di's interpretation of the Quran indeed contains a number of interpretations that can be regarded as an endorsement of modern military jihad. However, it should be borne in mind that banning a fairly popular interpretation of the Quran on the basis of several aggressive statements it contains, may provoke a stronger negative reaction among the believers than the expected direct impact of these statements. As for the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, this text contains a ban on friendship with “infidels” and calls to fight them, however, we must not forget that Ibn Kathir is not a modern author, but a 14th century scholar, and the historical conditions, under which he was writing, were very different from our modern ones, so his text cannot be expected to conform to the modern understanding of tolerance.
Prosecutions against Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose organizations in Russia (395 local communities along with the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center) were banned as extremist in 2017, continued actively in 2020. According to the data collected by Jehovah's Witnesses, as of January 2021, criminal cases have been initiated against approximately 424 believers in 60 regions of the country since 2017. Based on the Jehovah's Witnesses data, it can be concluded that, in 2020, new criminal cases for continuation of the activities of their banned organizations and for financing them (Articles 2822 and 2823) were initiated against at least 110 believers (vs. at least 213 defendants in 2019). Thus, the figures are about 50% of those recorded in the preceding year, and we can conclude that the repressive campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses has slowed down in 2020.
Part of the numerous criminal cases previously initiated against believers reached the courts in 2020. At least 25 sentences were issued against 46 of Jehovah's Witnesses.
13 people were sentenced to imprisonment:
- Sergei Filatov from Dzhankoi (six years of imprisonment under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Artyom Gerasimov from Yalta (originally sentenced under Article 2822 Part 1 to a fine of 400 thousand rubles, but the Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea replaced the fine with six years behind bars);
- Sergei Britvin and Vadim Levchuk from Beryozovsky in the Kemerovo Region (both received four years under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Vladimir Khokhlov and Eduard Zhinzhikov (both received a year and three months under Article 2822 Part 1 and Article 2823 Part 1); Tatyana Shamsheva and Olga Silaeva (both received one year under Article 2822 Part 2) from Novozybkov of the Bryansk Region; for all four defendants the term stipulated by the verdict was already served in pre-trial detention;
- Unknown 58-year-old man from Rostov-on-Don (11 years in maximum-security penitentiary under the aggregation of articles – Article 2822 Part 2 and Article 132 Part 3 paragraph “c” that covers violence against minors under the age of 14);
- Sergei Polyakov from Omsk (three years of imprisonment under Article 2822 Part 1 and Article 2823 Part 1);
- Yuri Savelyev from Novosibirsk (six years of imprisonment under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolai Kuzichkin from Sochi (a year and ten months and a year and a month, respectively, under Article 2822 Part 1; both of them already served in pre-trial detention the entire term stipulated by the verdict).
27 people received suspended sentences:
- Grigory Bubnov from the village of Razdolnoye of Primorsky Krai (five years under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Alexander Pryanikov, Venera Dulova and Daria Dulova from Karpinsk of the Sverdlovsk Region (two and a half years and two years each, respectively, under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Stanislav Kim and Nikolai Polevodov from Khabarovsk (two years each under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Yevgeny Aksenov from Khabarovsk (two years under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Igor Ivashin from Lensk in Yakutia (six years under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Gennady Shpakovsky from Pskov (six and a half years under Article 2822 Part 1 and Article 2823 Part 1; initially, the defendant was sentenced to real prison term, but the appellate court replaced the verdict with a suspended sentence);
- Khasan Kogut from Berezovsky of the Kemerovo Region (two and a half years under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Konstantin Bazhenov, Snezhana Bazhenova, and Vera Zolotova from Yelizovo of Kamchatka Krai (two years under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Ulyanovsk residents Sergei Mysin (four years), Mikhail Zelensky, Andrei Tabakov and Alexander Ganin (three years), Natalya Mysina and Khoren Khachikyan (two and a half years) under Article 2822 Part 2;
- Valeria Raiman and Sergei Raiman from Kostroma (seven and eight years, respectively, under both Parts 1 and 2 of Article 2822);
- Sergei Ledenev from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (two years under Article 2822 Part 1);
- Anastasia Polyakova, Gaukhar Bektemirova and Dinara Dyusekeeva from Omsk (two and a half years, two years, three months and two years, respectively, under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Ruslan Alyev from Rostov-on-Don (two and a half years under Article 2822 Part 2);
- Semyon Baibak from Rostov-on-Don (three and a half years under Article 2822 Part 2 and Article 2823 Part 1).
Six people were sentenced to fines, all under Article 2822 Part 1:
- Victor Trofimov and Roman Markin from Polyarny in the Murmansk Region (350 thousand and 300 thousand rubles);
- Mikhail Popov and Elena Popova from Vilyuchinsk in Kamchatka Krai (350 thousand and 300 thousand rubles);
- Yevgeny Spirin from Furmanov in the Ivanovo Region (500 thousand rubles);
- Anatoly Tokarev from Kirov (500 thousand rubles).
One believer was acquitted by the court in 2020, but not under Article 2822. In Maysky of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the lengthy trial of Yuri Zalipaev came to an end. He was charged under Article 280 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity); according to the investigation, he called for beatings of Orthodox and Muslims during his sermon. The court acquitted him based on the results of the forensic examination; in early 2021 the acquittal was upheld by the Supreme Court of the republic. Zalipaev’s case was opened in 2017; until 2019, he had also been charged under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (incitement to religious hatred), but this charge was dropped after the partial decriminalization of this legal norm.
In 2020, courts returned a number of cases back to prosecutors:
- The Promyshlenny District Court of Orenburg returned to the prosecutor the case of Sergei Logunov, Vladimir Kochnev, Nikolai Zhugin, Alexei Matveyev, Pavel Lekontsev, and Vladislav Kolbanov under Article 2822 Parts 1 and 2 and Article 2823 Part 1 due to the vagueness of the charges and the lack of definition of motives and purposes of the crimes.
- The Industrialny District Court of Khabarovsk ruled to return the case under Article 2822 Parts 1 and 2 against Vitaly Zhuk, Tatiana Zhuk, Maya Karpushkina, Svetlana Sedova, as well as previously convicted Stanislav Kim and Nikolai Polevodov to the prosecutor's office to eliminate violations in the indictment. The Khabarovsk Regional Court upheld this decision.
- The Leninsky District Court of Smolensk returned the case under Article 2822 Part 2 against 64-year-old Valentina Vladimirova and 61-year-old Tatyana Galkevich due to inadmissibility of the evidence provided by the prosecutor’s office.
- The Partisansk City Court of Primorsky Krai returned the case under Article 2822 Part 1 against Irina Buglak and another resident of Partizansk born in 1997. Believers pointed out that the Partizansk community was liquidated (but not recognized as extremist) back in 2015, prior to the ban against the Jehovah's Witnesses organizations; therefore, prosecution for continuation of its activities is not based on the law.
- The Pervorechensky District Court of Vladivostok returned the cases of the spouses Elena Barmakina (Article 2822 Part 2) and Dmitry Barmakin (Article 2822 Part 1) to the prosecutor's office due to the vagueness of the charges.
At the same time, as in the preceding year, cases returned to the prosecutor's office often came back to courts, either by the decisions of appellate instances or after the shortcomings were corrected by prosecutors.
- The case of Vladimir Alushkin, Tatyana Alushkina, Andrei Magliv, Vladimir Kulyasov, Denis Timoshin and Galiya Olkhova, whose verdict was issued in December 2019 and then canceled by the regional court, returned to the Penza Regional Court. As a result, the court replaced Vladimir Alushkin's six year prison term with a four-year suspended sentence and upheld the remaining suspended sentences.
- The Naberezhnye Chelny City Court will once again consider the case of Ilham Karimov, Vladimir Myakushin, Konstantin Matrashov and Aidar Yulmetyev; the new version of the charge was brought under Article 2822 Part 1 and Article 2823 Part 1; earlier, the case had been returned by the same court to the prosecutor's office, with decision approved by the Supreme Court of Tatarstan.
- The Leninsky District Court of Vladivostok has received for retrial a case under Article 2822 Parts 1 and 2 against Valentin Osadchuk and six women aged 61 to 85 (Nadezhda Anoikina, Lyubov Galaktionova, Elena Zaishchuk, Nailya Kogai, Nina Purge and Raisa Usanova), which was returned to the prosecutor in November 2019.
In practice, it turns out that there is no clear system indicating what articles and what parts of them the courts use against the believers, and what punishments are imposed on them for the same acts (holding prayer meetings and participating in them, collecting money, spreading the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses). The same applies to the appellate review of the cases – some regional courts always uphold the decisions of the courts of first instance, others mitigate the sentences (for example, changing the real term of incarceration to a suspended one), while yet others, on the contrary, tend to make them harsher (changing a fine or a suspended sentence to imprisonment). Some courts pose questions about the constitutional right of Jehovah's Witnesses to freedom of religion, while others do not hesitate to interpret religious practice as a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization. Obviously, a lot here depends on the position of local law enforcement agencies, courts and authorities in general.
It is also worth noting that, according to Jehovah's Witnesses, more than 220 believers have spent time in pre-trial detention since the ban on the communities went into force, and about 70 were behind bars at some point in 2020. As before, the number of defendants in pre-trial detention kept changing throughout the year – on the one hand, new arrests were made, but, on the other hand, the courts changed jail to more lenient measures (house arrest, prohibition of certain actions, travel restrictions) for some of the believers. During the year, this number fluctuated between twenty and forty people.
Two Jehovah's Witnesses from Saratov, Felix Makhammadiev born in Uzbekistan and Konstantin Bazhenov born in Ukraine, were deprived of their Russian citizenship as convicted offenders under an anti-extremist criminal article. Makhammadiev was deported to Uzbekistan after his release from his penal colony in early 2021; Bazhenov has not yet finished serving his court-appointed term.
In November of 2020, the Fifth General Jurisdiction Appellate Court upheld the claim of the prosecutor of the Republic of Khakassia to liquidate and recognize as extremist Khakassian Regional Public Organization for Spiritual and Physical Self-Improvement of a Person under the Great Falun Law “Falun Dafa.” Earlier, in July, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Khakassia dismissed the claim, but the Prosecutor’s Office appealed this decision. The claim seeking to liquidate the Khakassian organization accused its members of trying to disseminate Zhuan Falun, a banned treatise by Falun Dafa founder Li Hongzhi. According to Falun Gong practitioners, the Khakassian Falun Dafa organization ceased its operations in 2017, and have tried to notify the state authorities about it. However, the prosecutor's office stated that they never received the minutes of the meeting, during which the organization had made its decision to self-dissolve. Meanwhile, in August, the court of first instance came to the conclusion that the plaintiff's demands to ban the organization's activities were disproportionate to the violations committed, since the fact of mass distribution of extremist materials had never been established. There were only isolated cases of violation of the law by the organization’s members, for which they were held accountable individually.
It is worth reminding that Zhuan Falun was recognized as extremist on the grounds that it allegedly advocated the superiority of the adherents of Falun Gong ideology over other people. In our opinion, propaganda of the truth of one’s own convictions cannot be regarded as incitement to hatred, and the book does not contain any calls for violence, therefore the ban against it is inappropriate. Thus, there were no grounds for banning the organization in Khakassia. Falun Dafa is a new religious movement built around the practice of qigong gymnastics in combination with elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It has been banned and persecuted in China, and its followers abroad, in turn, sharply criticize the Chinese authorities. The ban on the organization in Khakassia puts Falun Gong adherents across the country at risk of criminal prosecution for continuing their spiritual practice.
In addition, in July, the Prosecutor General's Office decided to recognize as undesirable the activities of seven international organizations of Falun Gong adherents (the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (USA), the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China (USA), the Global Mission To Rescue Persecuted Falun Gong Practitioners (USA), Friends of Falun Gong (USA), Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (USA), Dragon Springs Buddhist Society (USA), and European Falun Dafa Association (UK). De facto this is a ban against activities of international Falun Gong organizations in Russia.
Once, in January 2020, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the decision of the Nevsky District Court of St. Petersburg, which, in May 2019, deemed the book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party by Falun Gong followers prohibited for distribution in Russia, this decision entered into force. The court relied on the expert opinion that the book contained statements “aimed at inciting social enmity against followers of the Chinese Communist Party and communism in general.” In our opinion, while Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party indeed contains sharp criticism of the CCP's activity, the authors of the book stay within the framework of historical and political discussion, do not allow any manifestations of ethnic xenophobia, do not advocate violence, and, on the contrary, emphasize the importance of a “non-violent transition to a society liberated from the CCP.” Therefore, in our opinion, there were no grounds for banning the book.
In May, the St. Petersburg City Court granted the appeal of the prosecutor's office and recognized books and booklets by American preacher William Branham (1909–1965) as extremist, despite the fact that earlier, in December 2018, the Pushkin District Court refused to ban these materials. According to the experts brought in by the prosecutor's office, the author of the books uses neuro-linguistic programming techniques, puts his teaching above the teachings of other churches, and creates an “image of an enemy” with respect to the “Catholic (including also the Orthodox) and Protestant churches.” The writings in question insult the feelings “of the relevant groups of clergy and believers” by describing their opponents as sectarians and advocating the “ideas of a person’s inferiority based on his/her religious affiliation.” The Pushkinsky District Court ordered a new expert examination, reviewed its results and the materials of the case, and, after hearing the opinion of the process participants, decided to deny the prosecutorial request. The prosecutor’s office did not agree with the decision of the Pushkinsky District Court and appealed to the city court, which ordered a new expert examination in the case and, based on its results, recognized Branham’s works as extremist. In our opinion, there are no grounds for banning Branham’s texts, since statements about the truth of one creed and the fallacy of all others are typical of any religious teaching and should not be prosecuted. In August, Branham’s books were included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials which thus increased by 21 new items.
The number of cases, in which we know of charges for distribution of Islamic religious literature that we believe to have been banned unreasonably, is in the single digits for 2020; seven people in various regions of Russia were fined under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. It should be noted that we possess information only on a small fraction (under two hundred) of all the decisions issued under this article in 2020; meanwhile, just in the first half of the year, the courts imposed sanctions under it 856 times.
Six cases dealt with Islamic materials, three of which pertained to the distribution of the MiraclesoftheQuran movie and one to a collection of prayers called FortressoftheMuslim – peaceful materials that appear in such administrative cases year after year. After two prohibited religious books were found in a mosque in the village of Kochaleika in the Penza Region, not only the imam had to pay a fine of 2,000 rubles, but the entire community was punished as well – by the court order, the work of the mosque was suspended for 30 days. In one case, the fine was based on alleged distribution of a Jehovah's Witnesses brochure.
In 2020, prosecutors continued to impose on libraries the sanctions, arising from the contradiction between the law “On Librarianship,” which requires the libraries to provide unfettered reader access to collections, and the anti-extremist legislation, which forbids mass distribution of prohibited materials.
Prosecutors charge libraries with a variety of offenses from presence of banned materials (usually books) in their collections (despite the fact that libraries have no legal ground for removing these materials) to the fact that the local library regulations fail to mention the ban on dissemination of extremist materials.
The most frequently occurring actions are prosecutorial objections with respect to local library regulations, and orders to eliminate the violations of legislation on combating extremist activity. They result in the libraries having to verify their holdings against the Federal List of Extremist Materials and take disciplinary action against the employees deemed responsible for the oversight. According to our data, at least 35 such sanctions (vs. at least 63 in 2019) were imposed on library administrators, including school libraries, in 2020. The data of the past few years indicates the general downward trend in the number of such sanctions. The change might be due to the fact that the library staff have generally adjusted to the peculiarities of the existing legislation and successfully handle prosecutorial audits.
In addition, we know about two cases of inappropriate sanctions against librarians under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for mass distribution of extremist materials.
In February, Reseda Gaisina, an employee of the Kutushevsky rural branch of the intersettlement centralized library system (CLS) of the Novosergievsky District in the Orenburg Region, was fined two thousand rubles. Her administrative case was based on the fact that, during an inspection, law enforcement agencies found in the library the FortressoftheMuslim – a collection of daily prayers recognized as extremist although, in our opinion, it does not contain any aggressive rhetoric.
In Perm Krai, Tatyana Shirinkina, the director of the Yusvinskaya Central Library System, was fined. During the inspection, the Yusvinsky District Prosecutor found a certain book, recognized as extremist in 2009, on the bookcrossing shelf (that is, on the shelf for the free exchange of books) in one of the libraries of the Central Library System. We believe that the Central Library System director had no intention of storing the prohibited materials specifically or facilitating their storage. In addition, books on the bookcrossing shelf do not belong to the library collection, and the legislation provides no definite guidance about the obligation of librarians to control the content of non-collection books swapped by visitors. In addition, the prosecutor's office could have simply issued a motion addressed to the Central Library System Director, or establish the person who put the book on the shelf and bring the perpetrator to justice; then the court could have submitted to the Central Library System Director a motion to eliminate the causes and conditions that contributed to the commission of an administrative offense (Article 29.13 of the Code of Administrative Offenses).
Educational institutions and libraries still face the prosecutorial wrath due to imperfection of content filtering on their computers. All computers accessible to minors are supposed to be equipped with filters restricting access to the forbidden information, including extremist materials. If a protection system does not work or works inadequately (and ideal filters simply do not exist), prosecutors address their warnings not to software developers or vendors, but to administrators of educational institutions and libraries, and the “guilty” staff faces disciplinary responsibility. In addition, principals of educational institutions get fined under Article 6.17 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for low quality of their content filtering. We only know of two such cases in 2020, although they are likely to be much more frequent.
We are opposed to sanctions against administrators of public institutions, such as cafes, Internet cafes, hotels, etc. under Article 6.17 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for the lack of content filtering, since these institutions are intended not only for children (supervised by parents), but also for adult users whose rights should not be limited. In 2020, administrators faced such charges on three occasions – owners of a pizzeria, a restaurant and an anti-movie-theater in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
Since Roskomnadzor did not publish a report on its activities for 2020, we have no information on the number of warnings issued by the agency to media outlets for violations of anti-extremist legislation during this period.
In addition to the above-mentioned Svetlana Prokopieva, at least one more journalist was unreasonably punished for carrying out professional activities: a journalist of the 29.ru portal Yaroslav Varenik was fined 10,000 rubles in Arkhangelsk under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for incitement to hatred. He published a news article about local resident Arseny Kuroptev, who had been punished under the same Article 20.3.1 for reposting a text about “a Muslim conspiracy to destroy Russians.” The journalist quoted part of Kuroptev’s post in the text of his article. Varenik’s actions were obviously not intended to incite national or religious hatred, and, as explained by the Supreme Court, quotes from xenophobic texts included in journalistic publications in order to inform readers should not be equated with the distribution of such quotes for propaganda purposes.
A Magistrates' Court judge in Moscow fined lawyer Stanislav Kulov, the editor-in-chief of the Religiya i Pravo (“Religion and Law”) website, in the amount of four thousand rubles under Article 13.15 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (dissemination of information about an organization recognized as extremist without indicating its prohibited status) for publishing an announcement regarding the presentation of the annual SOVA Center report on freedom of conscience. The text of the announcement mentioned “intensified persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses” as one of the key trends in the freedom of conscience violations in Russia. Roskomnadzor, which filed an administrative offense report against Kulov, and then the court, concluded that the website had an obligation to mention the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses organizations had been banned as extremist. According to the Religiya i Pravo editorial board, this notification was not required, since the text spoke not about the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia, but merely about citizens, who followed the religious teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the religion per se was not prohibited by the Supreme Court decision. However, this argument was not accepted by a district court, which upheld the decision of the magistrate.
Let us first turn to the general statistics collected by the SOVA Center in 2020 in the field of criminal law enforcement.
Providing these figures, we traditionally clarify that our data cover approximately two and a half times less than the actual number of sentences issued for utterances and reflected in statistical reports published semiannually by the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. We only know of the sentences that are reported by the press, law enforcement agencies, courts, convicted offenders themselves or their lawyers, and so on, and such information does not always become public.
At least five sentences against eight people were issued for violent hate crimes, one sentence for ideologically-motivated vandalism, and 112 sentences against 130 people for public statements. Among this last group we regard four sentences against five people as legitimate, intended to suppress xenophobic manifestations; another 24 sentences against 28 people, in our opinion, are likely to have been issued appropriately – based on propaganda of violence against government officials; we are not confident with regard to the legitimacy of seven sentences against eight people, and we do not know (or have insufficient information on) the basis for the charges that led to 64 sentences against 70 people. We know of 55 sentences against 122 people under the articles on involvement in banned organizations, of which three sentences against eight people we consider justified, and we are unable to evaluate nine additional sentences against 26 people due to lack or vagueness of information.
Now let's proceed to the data on the criminal sentences in the categories listed above that we view as inappropriate. If we take into account the problematic decisions made under both anti-terrorist and anti-extremist articles, the total for 2020 will be 54 verdicts against 99 people (compared to 31 verdict against 97 people in 2019); out of these, 13 sentences against 19 people (vs. six against six people in 2019) were associated with public statements, 43 sentences against 88 people (vs. 26 sentences against 92 people in 2019) were associated with involvement in the activities of banned organizations, primarily religious.
Out of these, 40 inappropriate sentences against 66 people were issued under anti-extremist criminal articles in 2020 (vs. 16 sentences against 44 people a year earlier). Nine sentences against nine people were issued for “extremist” statements (we recorded four such sentences against four people in 2019), and 31 verdicts against 57 people for involvement in the activities of extremist organizations (vs. 12 against 40 in 2019).
Below in this chapter, we present the results of tallying court decisions and newly initiated criminal cases that seem to us either completely inappropriate or majorly problematic, grouping them according to articles of the Criminal Code (the cases themselves are discussed in the relevant chapters of the report).
In 2020, as in 2019, we did not note a single inappropriate verdict under Article 282 of the Criminal Code and not a single new case unreasonably opened under this article.
As in the preceding year, according to our data, one sentence was inappropriately imposed on one person under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for insulting the feelings of believers. A court found a Voronezh citizen guilty of publishing an atheistic image on the Internet (and of distributing pornography). We have no information about the punishment imposed on him. Three new criminal cases were initiated under Article 148 – in Chita and in the Kemerovo and the Oryol regions.
In 2020, at least 15 new cases were inappropriately opened under Article 3541 Parts 1 and 3 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism), verdicts were pronounced on six of them (in 2019, two inappropriate sentences were issued under this article), and one case has been closed. Six people in different regions of Russia were sentenced to various punishments (a fine was imposed in four cases, two more entailed community service and corrective labour) for trying to upload portraits of Nazis and Nazi collaborators to the Immortal Regiment website on the eve of May 9.
In 2020, as in 2019, two inappropriate sentences were issued under Article 280 of the Criminal Code for incitement to extremism. Valery Bolshakov – the former secretary of the Sevastopol branch of the Russian United Labor Front Party (ROT FRONT) whose sentence was overturned in 2019, received another suspended sentence of two and a half years with a two-year ban on holding public office for his anti-government calls. We also view charges against Bashkir nationalist Airat Dilmukhametov under Article 280 for an emotional statement about Chechens that, in our opinion, should not be interpreted as a call to violence, as unjustified. (Dilmukhmametov was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security colony under a set of the Criminal Code articles for several of his public statements.) One case inappropriately initiated in 2020 was returned to the prosecutor's office.
At least once arbitrary charges were brought under Article 2801 of the Criminal Code on calls for separatism in 2020 (vs. none in 2019) – once again in the case of Airat Dilmukhametov – following a video message, in which he considered the possibility of initiating the renegotiation of a federal agreement between the subjects of the Russian Federation under new conditions. At least two new cases were opened that we consider lacking proper grounds – against Ingush activist Rashid Maisigov for calling online and in leaflets, the people of Ingushetia to secede from Russia and join Georgia, and against a citizen of Ukraine for distributing leaflets in Crimea that called for the return of the peninsula to Ukraine.
According to our data, not a single inappropriate sentence was issued in 2020 under Articles 213 and 214 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism and vandalism), taking into account the hate motive; the same was true in 2019. Of the two inappropriately opened cases on hate-motivated hooliganism that went to court in 2020, one ended in acquittal, and the hate motive was excluded from the other one.
In 2020, as in 2019, the courts did not deliver a single inappropriate verdict under Article 2821 of the Criminal Code on the organization of an extremist community and participation in it. We have no information about any new cases opened under this article without due justification.
At least 31 inappropriate sentences were issued against 57 people under Article 2822 of the Criminal Code in 2020 (a year earlier we recorded 12 such sentences against 40 people). 25 sentences against 46 people pertained to continuation of the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses communities, with 13 people sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, 27 receiving suspended sentences, and six people sentenced to heavy fines. Two sentences against seven people (in Saratov and the Leningrad Region) were imposed for organizing the cells of the banned Islamic movement Tablighi Jamaat or participating in its activities; they received various terms of incarceration, from one to three years in a penal colony. Three additional suspended sentences were issued to three activists of the Other Russia party from Chelyabinsk for continuing the activities of the banned National Bolshevik Party. An activist of the Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (IGPR “ZOV”) from Chernogolovka in the Moscow Region was convicted of continuing the activities of the Army of People’s Will – an organization recognized as extremist. He also received a suspended sentence. The number of people facing inappropriate prosecution under Article 2822 in the cases initiated in 2020 was at least 130, of which the overwhelming majority are Jehovah's Witnesses (we recorded about 218 new criminal cases initiated under this article in 2019).
In total, we know about new criminal cases against approximately 145 people inappropriately initiated in 2020 under anti-extremist articles – a significantly smaller number than in 2019, when about 233 people faced inappropriate prosecution. This change is due to the decline in the persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses, since, as in the preceding year, they constituted the overwhelming majority of the defendants in such cases. Only a few new cases pertained to public statements.
We classified six sentences under Article 2052 of the Criminal Code on the justification of terrorism as inappropriate. 12 people were convicted: Kursk resident Sergei Lavrov, was sentenced to five years in a penal colony and compulsory psychiatric treatment for posts calling for a fight against the “anti-national regime,” Mikhail Sharygin from Nizhny Novgorod was fined 400 thousand rubles for his calls to blow up a construction site fence impeding the passage of the city residents, and journalist Svetlana Prokopieva from Pskov was fined 500 thousand rubles for discussing the influence of the state's repressive policy on young people in her radio broadcast on the subject of the explosion in the FSB office lobby in Arkhangelsk. Article 2052 also appeared in the verdict against Airat Dilmukhametov, along with other articles, because he had declared that Hizb ut-Tahrir was not a terrorist organization; eight Hizb ut-Tahrir followers also were convicted under this article for justifying the activities of their party. We seriously doubt the validity of yet another sentence – the one faced by Aitakhaji Khalimov from Kaliningrad, who received three and a half years in a penal colony for reposting a video about the First Chechen War. We also believe that the case against activist Darya Polyudova under Article 2052 (initiated in 2020 for justifying, in a private conversation, Yevgeny Manyurov's attack against the FSB building in Lubyanka) lacks proper justification.
As indicated above, we view the sentences imposed under the anti-terrorist articles of the Criminal Code for continuing the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir as inappropriate. Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters are charged under Article 2055 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of a terrorist organization or participating in such activities), sometimes under Article 2051 (contributing to terrorist activity), often in conjunction with Article 2052 (public calls for terrorist activity) and with Article 278 and Article 30 (preparing for forcible seizure of power). In 2020, there were 12 such sentences against 31 people (vs. 14 sentences against 52 people in 2019). The offenders received from five to 23 years of imprisonment in a maximum or super-maximum security colony, sometimes with part of the term to be served in prison, and with various additional restrictions. About 30 people were arrested in 2020 on charges of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir (about 20 arrested were reported in 2019).
Before proceeding to our data on the use of the Code of Administrative Offenses articles aimed at combating extremism, we would like to remind that, in reality, there are hundreds or even thousands of cases filed under these articles. For example, according to the statistics provided by the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court, only in the first half of 2020, sanctions were imposed 347 times under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (vs. 383 for the entire 2019), 1052 times under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (vs. 2388 times for the entire 2019) and 856 times under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (vs. 1591 times for the entire 2018). However, only for several dozen cases we have sufficient information on the reason for the sanctions and the opportunity to evaluate the extent of their legitimacy.
We regard as inappropriate the administrative cases filed against eleven people under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for inciting hatred (vs. nine such people in the preceding year): six people were fined, two were put under arrest, and one was sentenced to community service (one person received all three types of punishment); with respect to one person the case was dropped. In almost all of these cases, harsh statements against the authorities and law enforcement agencies formed the basis for the sanctions. For comparison, we classified 126 decisions we know to have been issued under Article 20.3.1 in 2020 as appropriate.
The sanctions for public demonstration of Nazi or other prohibited symbols, that is, under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, were, in our opinion, inappropriate in at least 44 cases (vs. 31 in 2019). In 43 cases the offenders were individuals (one more was a legal entity), including activists of the opposition, small business owners and ordinary social media users. A fine was imposed in 27 cases, administrative arrest in ten cases and six out of 44 cases were discontinued; the outcome of two remaining cases is unknown.
According to our information, there were at least 58 cases of inappropriate punishment under Article 20.29 for mass distribution of extremist materials or for storage of such materials with intent to distribute (vs. 59 in 2019). The cases pertained to 58 individuals, and, in two cases, also included legal entities as defendants, and, in one such case, the activity of the legal entity was suspended for 30 days. We know that the courts imposed a fine as punishment in 55 of these cases, two cases were discontinued, and the outcome of one more case is unknown. Inappropriately punished individuals included primarily ordinary users of social networks, opposition activists and believers of various religious movements. As a rule, these people were not involved in the actual mass distribution of banned materials.
At least 30 cases were filed in 2020 under Article 20.1 Parts 3–5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (on the dissemination of information expressing disrespect for the state and the society in indecent form on the Internet). A year earlier, there were at least 56 such cases, that is, the trend of norm being applied less frequently, which was observed in the second half of 2019, continued. A fine was imposed 21 times (one person was fined three times; one more person was fined twice), administrative arrest was imposed in one case for a repeated violation, proceedings in five cases were discontinued, the outcome of two cases is unknown, and, in one remaining case, a fine was levied after the end of our review period, in early 2021. In almost all cases, the charges were related to disrespect for the authorities (primarily the president, but also officials, police officers, or judges).
The Federal List of Extremist Materials increased by 139 entries in 2020, compared to 193 new entries in 2019, that is, its growth rate, which shows a downward trend over the last few years, continued to fall. However, the number of entries that we view as included on the list inappropriately has grown compared to the previous year – 25 entries compared to five in 2019 (21 of them were actually by the same author: American Christian minister William Branham). We have to add, as usual, that we are not familiar with all the materials on the Federal List, and some materials with content unknown to us could also have been banned inappropriately. In addition, we believe that the mechanism of banning materials and adding them to a special list, which reached 5143 entries by the end of 2020, is ineffective and leads to sanctions for disseminating information that poses no actual danger to society.
 Our work on this issue was supported in 2020 by the European Union, Netherlands, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the International Partnership for Human Rights.
On December 30, 2016, the Ministry of Justice forcibly included SOVA Center on the list of “non-profit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent.” We disagree with this decision and have filed an appeal against it.
 See: The SOVA Center commentary on the Resolution of the Plenary Session of the Supreme Court on Extremist and Terrorist Crimes // SOVA Center. 2016. November 3 (https://www.sova-center.ru/misuse/publications/2016/11/d35761/).
 This status was introduced in the preceding year. See: Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2019 // SOVA Center. 2020. 21 April (https://www.sova-center.ru/en/misuse/reports-analyses/2020/04/d42333/).
 See: Ruling of the Plenary Session of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation “On Court Practice in Criminal Cases on Crimes of an Extremist Nature” of June 28 2011 No. 11 // Rulings of the Plenary Sessions of the Supreme Court. 2015. July 10 (http://supcourt.ru/en/files/16428/), p. 150.
 Prosecution against Polyudova under Article 2801 of the Criminal Code was terminated in February 2021 due to the partial decriminalization of this article.
See: The Belgorod Region: Administrative Sanctions for the Distribution of the Video “Let's Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002” // SOVA Center. 2020 (https://www.sova-center.ru/misuse/news/persecution/2019/10/d41616/).
See: Sanctions against Individuals for Online Insults against the State and the Society // SOVA Center. 2020 (https://www.sova-center.ru/misuse/news/persecution/2019/04/d40942/).
 See: Consolidated statistical data on the activities of federal courts of general jurisdiction and magistrates’ courts for the first half of 2020 // Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2020 (http://www.cdep.ru/index.php?id=79&item=5461); Consolidated statistical data on the activities of federal courts of general jurisdiction and magistrates’ courts for 2019 // Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2020 (http://www.cdep.ru/index.php?id=79&item=5258).
 Our position is based, inter alia, on the ECHR judgment on the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was made as part of the decision on the complaint of two convicted members of the organization against the actions of the Russian authorities. The ECHR stated that although neither the teachings nor the practice of Hizb ut-Tahrir allow us to consider the party a terrorist organization and it does not explicitly call for violence, its prohibition on other grounds would be justified, since it presumes, in the future, the overthrow of some existing political systems with the aim of establishing a dictatorship based on the Sharia law; it is also characterized by anti-Semitism and radical anti-Israeli propaganda (for which Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in Germany in 2003), as well as categorical rejection of democracy and equal rights and recognition of violence against the countries, which the party considers as aggressors against the “land of Islam,” as legitimate. The goals of Hizb ut-Tahrir clearly contradict the values of the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular, the commitment to the peaceful settlement of international conflicts and the inviolability of human life, the recognition of civil and political rights and democracy. Activities for such purposes are not protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
 Here we provide information only about the principal punishment, without additional ones, although those were frequently imposed as well, for example, restriction of freedom or a ban on participation in public organizations for a certain period.
 In 2021, the court of appeal added six months to Mysin's term, reclassifying the charge against him as Article 2822 Part 1.
 In 2021, the appellate court dropped the charges under Part 1 of Article 2822 and reduced the terms of Valeria Raiman and Sergei Raiman to suspended sentences of two and three years.
 The case was returned to the court in 2021.
 A detailed list of possible charges can be found in our report for 2011. See, Alexander Verkhovsky, Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2011 // SOVA Center. 2012. 27 April (https://www.sova-center.ru/en/misuse/reports-analyses/2020/04/d42333/).
 We are sure that we never find out about the majority of sanctions imposed. Often, we know about the series of inspections, which was conducted and resulted in sanctions, but the number of warnings and other acts of prosecutorial response is not always reported. In such cases, we counted the entire series as a single instance.
 See: Ruling of the Plenary Session of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of 15 June 2010 No. 16 "On the Practice of Application by Courts of the Law of the Russian Federation ‘On the Media’” // Rulings of the Plenary Sessions of the Supreme Court. 2015. July 10 (http://supcourt.ru/en/files/16428/), p. 55.
 This refers to sentences that take into account the hate motive. For more details see: Natalia Yudina, “Potius sero, quam nunquam”: Hate Crimes and Counteraction to Them in Russia in 2020 // SOVA Center. 2021. February 5 (https://www.sova-center.ru/en/xenophobia/reports-analyses/2021/02/d43611/).
 See more details in the concurrent SOVA Center report: Natalia Yudina, Anti-extremism in Quarantine: The State against the Incitement of Hatred and the Political Participation of Nationalists in Russia in 2020 // SOVA Center. 2021. March 12 (https://www.sova-center.ru/en/xenophobia/reports-analyses/2021/03/d43830/).
 Speaking about the appropriateness of court decisions, we consider them only on the merits, in most cases omitting any discussion of possible procedural violations.
 Some sentences are based on the aggregation of articles, including articles on public statements and articles on involvement in banned organizations.
 See: Consolidated statistical data on the activities of federal courts of general jurisdiction and magistrates’ courts for the first half of 2020 // Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2020 (http://www.cdep.ru/index.php?id=79&item=5461); Consolidated statistical data on the activities of federal courts of general jurisdiction and magistrates’ courts for 2019 // Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2020 (http://www.cdep.ru/index.php?id=79&item=5258).