Brief Report on Inappropriate Use of Anti-Extremist Legislation in January–September 2021
The following brief review covers the most important legislative innovations and the law enforcement statistics in the field of countering extremism in the period from January to the end of September 2021, that is, in the period before the tallying of the parliamentary election results. Our review is limited only to the part of the legislation and law enforcement practice that we see as leading to an excessive restriction of civil liberties.
On the eve of the elections, the legislative process in our area of interest was focused entirely on tightening the existing harsh norms and introducing new ones. Obviously, at this stage, the Russian authorities decided that suppressing independent public activity and creating an atmosphere of fear was the best way to maintain control over the country.
The first half of 2021 saw a new step in tightening Internet regulations.
In February, the government passed a ruling based on the “sovereign Internet” law that allowed Roskomnadzor to slow down traffic on popular platforms in order to restrict access to information posing a threat to the country's security, including information prohibited from dissemination by Russian laws. In March these measures were applied to Twitter, which, according to the Russian authorities, failed to promptly remove content banned in Russia.
In late February, amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses were signed. Among other things, administrative liability was established for the owners of Internet sites, regardless of their size, that discriminate against Russian citizens on ethnic, religious, and other grounds or based on sanctions imposed against Russia, as well as any websites that remove “socially significant information” and generally impose “restrictions that violate the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to freely seek, receive, transfer, produce and distribute information in any legal way,” that is, any content restrictions not stipulated by Russian law. Fines for violators were set (in the millions of rubles for legal entities); in addition, access to their resources can be restricted by slowing down the traffic or fully blocking it.
In July, the president signed a law obligating the foreign Internet companies whose daily audience includes over 500 thousand Russian users to open representative offices in Russia; the requirement also applies to foreign hosting providers that work with Russian citizens as well as owners of email or instant messaging services or advertising networks, regardless of the size of their Russian audience. Among other requirements, the law stipulates that these companies must restrict access to materials prohibited in Russia. Various coercive measures are provided for failure to comply with this demand: informing search engines users that a resource violates Russian legislation, a ban on the distribution of its advertising in Russia, a ban against advertising on the company's websites, restrictions on accepting monetary transfers and payments from Russian individuals and legal entities, a ban on being delivered by search engines, and the prohibition on collecting and cross-border transfer of personal data. In addition, a refusal to interact with Roskomnadzor, to open a representative office, or to store personal data of Russians on the Russian territory can entail measures such as partial or complete restriction of access to the resource.
The list of information subject to extrajudicial blocking has also expanded. A law empowering election commissions to make decisions on the temporary blocking of illegal campaigning was signed in March. In July, Roskomnadzor was instructed to block false crime allegations – users can send to prosecutors a request to have such an allegation removed or blocked with a “reasoned justification” of the information’s inaccuracy.
Also in late July, an interdepartmental Russian delegation submitted to the UN special committee a draft convention on countering cybercrime. The draft includes 23 offenses that can be committed using information and communication technologies. The wording proposed by the Prosecutor General's Office is based on the terminology used in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation in the context of countering terrorism and extremism, so it includes such categories, as “humiliation of dignity” on the basis of belonging to various groups or “justification” of various illegal acts – currently absent in international law and potentially problematic in their interpretation.
New restrictions were introduced in 2021 for individuals whom the authorities consider involved in extremist and terrorist activities. Amendments to the federal law “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations” were signed in April. According to them, the following types of persons are not allowed to be leaders or members of religious groups: a foreign citizen or a stateless person, whose stay in the Russian Federation has been deemed undesirable; a person included on the Rosfinmonitoring list of extremists and terrorists (being suspected in such activity is sufficient for inclusion on the list); 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, were extended to include the leaders and members of religious groups. In our opinion, these new restrictions represent an excessive intrusion into the exercise of the right to freedom of religion – even involvement in illegal activities should not deprive a person of the opportunity to be a member of a religious organization or group because this right is guaranteed by the constitutional provision regarding the right to profess one's religion “together with others” (Article 28 of the Constitution).
In June, the president signed a law prohibiting those “involved” in the activities of an extremist or terrorist organization from running for elected office. The restriction of the right to be elected will apply to anyone who, in the three-year period before the decision to ban or liquidate a problematic organization enters into force, held the post of its founder, member of its collegial governing body, its head or deputy head, a head or deputy head of its structural unit, as well as anyone who, during the year that preceded the ban’s entry into force, was a participant, a member, an employee or “other person involved in the activities” of the organization. For founders and leaders, the restriction on the passive electoral right will be in effect for five years from the date, on which the decision to ban their organization enters into force; for participants, etc. the restriction remains in effect for three years after the said date. Involvement in the activities of an extremist or terrorist organization is established by a court decision and defined as “direct implementation of objectives and/or forms of activity (including individual events), due to which the organization was recognized as extremist or terrorist,” “support by statements” (including online) of such objectives, forms of activity and of the organization itself, or providing the organization with financial, property, organizational, methodological, advisory and other assistance. The introduction of such broad passive suffrage restrictions, especially for actions committed in the period that precedes the actual ban on the organization or even the filing of charges against it, is questionable in terms of its compliance with Article 54 of the Constitution – but is also logically consistent with recognizing Alexei Navalny’s organizations as extremist. On the eve of the parliamentary elections, the Russian authorities secured and then actively used the means to legally bar members of the opposition from participating.
In July, a law was signed, according to which the mass media must, under threat of a fine, accompany their references to organizations recognized as terrorist in Russia with disclaimers indicating that their activities are prohibited. Until now, such a requirement has been imposed only on references to organizations recognized as extremist. Such purely formal requirements are clearly unnecessary and lead to numerous enforcement incidents. We believe that, rather than enforce the use of specific disclaimers by informational resources, the authorities need to ensure that the media does not promote misanthropic ideas.
However, of course, an absent disclaimer makes a convenient pretext for imposing sanctions against undesirable actors. In February, the president signed a law introducing or increasing the administrative liability of all categories of “foreign agents” for violations of the operating procedures – the absence of the appropriate labeling on materials, a failure to submit, or incomplete submission of information about themselves and their status. 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 media without the appropriate labeling. In late April, the president also signed a law establishing administrative responsibility for media resources that fail to mention the foreign agent designation when distributing the materials by “foreign agent media.”
The “foreign agents” participating in the elections also had to label their materials appropriately. Amendments adopted in April introduced two new legislative concepts – “a candidate affiliated with a person or entity performing the functions of a foreign agent” and “a candidate who is a person performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The former means any candidate who, within two years prior to the scheduling of an election, worked for a “foreign agent” non-profit organization, was the head or member of a “foreign agent” unregistered public association, was an employee of a “foreign agent” media resource or received money or material assistance from foreign agents while carrying out political activities. The latter category includes individuals recognized as “foreign agents” or “foreign agent media.” Under the new amendments, both an election commission and a candidate must inform the voters about their “foreign agent” status on their signature lists and all their campaign materials, including debates. This requirement also applies to the party that nominated a “foreign agent” candidate. In addition, the law extends the ban on participation in election campaigns, already in place for “foreign agent” NPOs, to unregistered public associations recognized as “foreign agents” or “foreign agent media.”
Yet another law signed in April mandated more stringent reporting requirements for “foreign agents.” Among other requirements, the law stipulates that “foreign agent” NPOs must submit their programs “declared for implementation” to the Ministry of Justice prior to implementing them, and must also annually submit to the Ministry the documentation on “ongoing programs” and activities, reports on the implementation of programs and activities, or information on the fact that the events never took place. Ministry of Justice can prohibit the entire NPO program or part of it; if a prohibited program is nevertheless implemented, the NPO is subject to liquidation (until now, such a procedure was valid only for branches of foreign NPOs).
In the summer, the FSB published a draft order “On approving the list of information in the field of military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation, which, when received by a foreign state, its state agencies, an international or foreign organization, foreign citizens or stateless persons, can be used to threaten the security of the Russian Federation.” The order was approved with some changes in late September; it was issued to be applied in the context of the law, according to which collecting such information in the interests of foreign states and citizens constitutes possible grounds for recognizing an individual as a “foreign agent,” if no signs of treason and espionage are present. The approved list contains 60 entries and provides many possibilities for abuse in limiting access to information and freedom of speech. Consider, for example, the clause that prohibits the collection of “information on the progress and results of the crime report reviews and preliminary investigations carried out by investigators” of the FSB and the military agencies of the Investigative Committee except for information made public with permission from these agencies. The very fact of designating an individual collecting such data as a foreign agent already constitutes an excessive restriction on these freedoms. However, in reality, this step also implies an immediate threat of criminal prosecution – if a person becomes a “foreign agent” specifically due to collecting such information, then any violation of the legislation on foreign agents committed by this person will be punished immediately under the criminal rather than administrative procedure; for example, if they fail to declare themselves a “foreign agent” and never ask to be included in the appropriate register, they could receive five years in prison for this violation alone.
In the spring of 2021, the authorities once again increased responsibility for the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” The corresponding package of laws, signed in April, strengthens criminal liability for publishing on the Internet the information covered under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code and introduces criminal penalties for “insulting the memory” of veterans and slander against them. The amendments increase the likelihood of the already poorly formulated Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code being used to impose unjustified restrictions on freedom of speech, since it now includes a notion of “abasement of honor and dignity” – the concept used by Article 5.61 of the Code of Administrative Offenses that allows for a broad interpretation - as well as the vague term “insult against the memory.” The amendment also expands administrative liability for the “rehabilitation of Nazism” for legal entities.
Two laws signed in June represented the next stage in the symbolic “fight against Nazism;” they are vaguely worded and curtail freedom of expression for no apparent reason. The law “On Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet People in the Great Patriotic War” now includes the ban against “publicly equating the goals, decisions and actions of the USSR leadership, the USSR commanders and military personnel with the goals, decisions and actions of the Nazi Germany leadership or commanders and military personnel of Nazi Germany and the Axis countries during World War II, as well as denying the decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR in the liberation of the European countries.” The law never clarifies what kind of statements will be regarded as “equating” in practice.
The second June law has provided the instrument for recognizing portraits of Nazi criminals and collaborators as extremist materials. The mechanism for combating the display of such images described in the law is so poorly thought out that the details of its actual application are completely unclear. Subsequently, in the fall, the Ministry of Justice had to provide explanations on this matter assuring the book publishing industry that it could safely distribute books with portraits of Nazis, provided that they condemned Nazism rather than advocated it.
Amendments to the federal law “On Education” were signed into law in April. The amendments introduce a legal concept of “educational activities,” defined as activities to disseminate various knowledge and experience carried out outside the framework of formal educational programs. According to the law, the procedure, conditions, and forms of conducting this broadly defined “educational activity” should be determined by the government, and the federal government bodies are responsible for coordinating the participation of educational organizations in international scientific cooperation. The law unreasonably expands the powers of the authorities in the field of education – in fact, it expands their powers over any communications. Besides, by analogy with the existing restrictions on pedagogical activity, the law introduces a ban on the use of educational activities “to incite hatred” and “to propagate the exceptionalism on the basis of various group affiliations, “including by reporting inaccurate information about the historical, national, religious and cultural traditions of peoples, or information intended to encourage actions contrary to the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”
In July, the President signed a decree approving the new National Security Strategy. The updated Strategy differs significantly from the previous version adopted in late 2015. Its emphasis is on protecting traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, culture, and historical memory and countering the Western influence, especially on the Internet. The legislative innovations described above obviously fit well with this scheme.
During the period under review, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made several significant decisions on complaints from Russian citizens related to our focus area of law enforcement.
In May, the ECHR satisfied the complaint filed by Novaya Gazeta in connection with a caution from Roskomnadzor received in 2010 for quoting the program of the ultra-right organization Russky Obraz and displaying symbols similar to Nazi symbols. The ECHR noted that interference with freedom of expression, in this case, was not necessary in a democratic society. The quotes from the Russky Obraz manifesto only illustrated the unequivocally expressed message of the article’s author and the editorial board regarding the illegal nature of the organization’s activities. The published symbols were clearly related to the article and were used in the context of public discussion. The Russian courts, in which Novaya Gazeta tried to challenge the caution, never investigated the context, in which these symbols had been displayed.
It is also important to note the first decision, issued in July, on the complaint against the application of Article 20.3 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda and demonstration of banned paraphernalia or symbols). The applicant, Vladimir Karataev, contested a fine of one thousand rubles imposed on him in 2007 under Article 20.3 Part 1 for including photographs of Slavic peoples’ household and religious worship items decorated with solar symbols in an article entitled “In Defense of the Swastika” published in Zakubanye (the newspaper issued by the Union of Slavs of Adygea). The article discussed the initiative of British Hindu organizations that launched a public campaign to rehabilitate the swastika, which “turned into the main symbol of fascism in the course of the previous century for most people,” but was, in fact, an ancient symbol used in different religions and by different ethnic groups. Karataev insisted that he had not published Nazi symbols but had instead informed readers about an important public campaign, but these arguments failed to convince the Russian courts, which simply stated that the symbols shown in the article were similar to the Nazi ones to the extent of confusion. When reviewing Karataev's complaint, the ECHR referred to several of its own earlier decisions and pointed out that, guided by the then-current wording of Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, the Russian courts made their decision without the necessary consideration of the content, context, and purposes of the publication, thus violating the applicant's right to freedom of expression.
In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the complaint of Olga Kurnosova, an opposition activist from St. Petersburg. Kurnosova's complaint pertained to the events that took place in 2007 when she was fined 1,000 rubles under Article 20.2 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (violating the established procedure for arranging or conducting a mass event). The sanction was related to an article published by the Yabloko Party St. Petersburg branch newspaper and written by Andrei Dmitriev, the leader of the National Bolsheviks of St Petersburg. The article called on the NBP supporters to join the Dissenters’ March. At that time, the activities of the NBP were suspended in connection with the ongoing review of a claim to ban the party as an extremist organization. After considering the case, a magistrates’ court ruled that Kurnosova, as the Dissenters’ March organizer, had involved members of the NBP in participating in this public event by publishing Dmitriev's article while the party's activities had been suspended. According to the ECHR, the magistrates’ court used an expansive and unpredictable interpretation of this norm, since the law defines an extremist organization as an organization that has been dissolved or banned by a final judicial decision on the ground of its extremist activities, rather than simply suspended. Thus, Kurnosova could not reasonably foresee that by publishing an article she would breach this provision. Thus, the ECHR decided that the case against Kurnosova was legally unfounded, and Russia had violated Kurnosova's right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights interpreted in the light of Article 11 protecting freedom of assembly.
The ECHR continues to review complaints directly related to the activities of the NBP – the party that initially was repeatedly denied registration for a long period of time, and then was banned as an extremist organization (in our opinion, without due justification). In June the Court ruled on the complaint of Sergei Yezhov, Oleg Bespalov, and Grigory Tishin – three former members of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) sentenced to five years in prison in 2004 (the sentences were reduced on appeal) for group hooliganism and damage to property on a large scale. In August 2004, all the three participated in the action against the adoption of the law transforming social benefits in kind into monetary compensation. During the action, the NBP members entered the Ministry of Health and Social Development building while shouting the slogan “Benefits for the People; Executions for Ministers,” barricaded themselves in several offices, waved NBP flags out of the office windows, and threw Vladimir Putin’s portrait out of a window. The ECHR concluded that Russia imposed disproportionately severe penalties on the applicants as well as violated their right to freedom of expression, since the court was negatively biased against their political views.
In September, the Strasbourg court ruled on a complaint by several members of the National Bolshevik Party Inter-Regional Civil Organization (Mezhregional'naya obschestvennaya organizatsiya “Natsional-bol'shevistskaya partiya,” MOO NBP) against its liquidation and the denial of registration as a political party. The ECHR did not consider the issue of the ban against the NBP as an extremist organization, pointing out that the events used as a justification for such a measure (in particular, the public actions that were interpreted in Russia as the obstruction of legitimate activities of the authorities linked to violence or the threat of violence, mass riots, or propaganda of extremism) occurred after the NBP had been repeatedly denied registration and after the organization had been liquidated. The ECHR concluded that Russia had violated the applicants' right to freedom of association, guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, since the national courts did not provide sufficient grounds for refusing to register a party. The Russian law on political parties indeed does not allow the creation of parties based on ethnicity, and the ECHR previously agreed with the legality of such a rule. However, the courts were unable to present convincing arguments to support the claim that the NBP was created specifically on an ethnic basis, and that its activities threatened the peaceful coexistence of ethnic communities and could lead to discrimination on ethnic grounds. Thus, refusing the NBP in registration was unfounded, according to the ECHR. The Court ruled that the liquidation of the NBP only on the grounds that it didn’t submit reports on its activities on time and did not choose for their organization the name not containing the word “party” (as required by the law on public associations) had been a disproportionate measure that could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. Thus, the applicants’ rights guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention were violated in this case as well.
Neutralization of Alexei Navalny and his supporters became a separate and very wide-reaching direction of anti-extremist law enforcement in the period leading to the elections. The authorities used all imaginable instruments (including the ones impossible in a democratic society) to prevent the opposition from participating in the elections.
Back in February, a criminal case under Article 239 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (creating a non-profit association whose activity is fraught with inducement of individuals to refuse to discharge their civil duties or to commit other unlawful deeds, and likewise operation of such an association) was initiated against Alexei Navalny and his associates, FBK Director Ivan Zhdanov and former Head of Navalny's Headquarters Leonid Volkov; they were formally charged in August. According to the investigation, the activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) created by Navalny, which he headed together with Zhdanov and Volkov, were associated with the inducement of citizens to commit illegal acts. In particular, Navalny and his associates organized, on their personal webpages and on the FBK pages, the dissemination of publications containing calls for Russian citizens to participate in uncoordinated rallies in January 2021, despite the fact that the illegal nature of these events and the administrative liability for participation in them was “reliably known in advance.” It should be noted that the charges against Navalny, Zhdanov and Volkov under Article 239 of the Criminal Code, which is not classified as part of anti-extremist legislation, later served as a basis for charging them and their organizations with extremism.
In June, the Moscow City Court satisfied the administrative claim of the Moscow prosecutor and recognized the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Citizens Rights Defense Fund (FZPG), and the Navalny Headquarters network as extremist organizations. As a reminder, FBK and FZPG were previously recognized as “foreign agents.” We view this decision as inappropriate. The prosecutor's office argued that the FBK, the FZPG and the Navalny Headquarters were “acting in active coordination with and were commissioned by various foreign centers conducting destructive actions against Russia” and engaging in extremist activities “by calling for violent actions, extremist activities, mass riots, and by attempting to involve minors in illegal activities, as was confirmed in a number of cases by the judicial acts that have entered into legal force.” The materials of the lawsuit mentioned that a criminal case had been initiated against Navalny, Zhdanov, and Leonid Volkov under Article 239 of the Criminal Code. The claim also contained several lists of people previously prosecuted for extremist offenses and crimes, for violating the legislation on public events, or participating in the activities of an “undesirable organization.” Notably, the lists included not only the staff of the Navalny Headquarters or FBK but also people whose connections with Navalny's organizations have never been confirmed in any way; some of them were subscribed to social network pages associated with Navalny. Acts, such as violating the legislation on rallies, participating in “undesirable organizations,” or committing actions that fall under Article 239 of the Criminal Code, are not listed in the definition of extremist activity. The claim presented no evidence to indicate that employees of the Navalny Headquarters, FBK, and FZPG systematically faced charges specifically for their extremist activities. In our opinion, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the activities of Navalny's organizations and isolated sanctions issued to social network subscribers of the Navalny Headquarters or FBK under the “extremist” articles of the Criminal Code. We see no reason to classify all the heated political discussions by social network users in the Navalny headquarters’ online groups as activities of the headquarters. Nevertheless, the First Court of Appeal of General Jurisdiction upheld the decision of the Moscow City Court in early August.
In addition, in August, a criminal case was opened against Navalny, Volkov, and Zhdanov under Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (collection of funds intended to support the activities of an extremist organization). The charges were apparently based on a video, published in early August, already after the three organizations were banned, in which Volkov and Zhdanov asked the public to support Navalny's team financially.
In late September, a case under Article 282.1 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (creating an extremist community and participating in it) was opened against Alexei Navalny and his supporters. Navalny, Leonid Volkov, Ivan Zhdanov, and “other persons” not named in the Investigative Committee’s announcement became suspects under Part 1. Lyubov Sobol, Georgy Alburov, Ruslan Shaveddinov, Vyacheslav Gimadi, Pavel Zelensky, and Rustem Mulyukov and unnamed “other persons” became suspects under Part 2. According to the investigators, Navalny, as the director of the FBK, created an “extremist community” in 2014. Later, “to expand the scope of criminal activity” of the community the politician and his supporters created the Navalny Headquarters public movement as well as eight other non-profit organizations. The Investigative Committee provided several examples of “extremist” crimes committed by members of the “criminal community.” However, it remains unclear why this list of crimes included the cases opened under articles completely unrelated to anti-extremist legislation (Articles 239 and 151.2 of the Criminal Code). The Investigative Committee also failed to provide any information regarding the nature of the connection between the “community” members – why, for example, the investigation sees activist Mulyukov from Ufa and FBK camera operator Zelensky as members of this community, but not thousands of other activists and dozens of people employed by Navalny's structures.
After the decision to ban Navalny's organizations came into force, activists in different regions of Russia faced sanctions under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for distributing Smart Voting materials with the campaign’s logo, the red exclamation mark, even though this symbol was not the emblem of any recognized extremist organization. We know of six such cases that took place before the end of September. In three cases, the offenders were given administrative arrest (one was later replaced with a fine), two people were fined, and the outcome of one case is unknown.
In June through September, during the election season, election commissions and courts across the country removed from ballots the candidates in any way connected with the activities of Alexei Navalny's organizations based on the law that came into force in June and prohibited persons “involved” in the activities of organizations recognized as extremist and terrorist from running for office. The cases tended to use a very expansive definition of “involvement,” but this did not worry election commissions or courts that readily confirmed their decisions. Not only former members of Navalny's organizations but also candidates who participated in rallies in his support or spoke out on social networks against his prosecution were removed from the elections. In total, at least 35 people in different regions of Russia were removed from elections at various levels under the pretext of their involvement in Navalny's organizations.
At the end of July, Roskomnadzor blocked access to 49 websites associated with Navalny's organizations based on the decision by the Prosecutor General's Office and demanded (albeit unsuccessfully) that global networks block a number of personal accounts of Navalny's associates. The grounds for the extrajudicial blocking were not specified, but, probably, it had to do with the recognition of Navalny's organizations as extremist.
It is also worth noting that, on August 6, the Moscow Arbitration Court dismissed the lawsuit by Google LLC against Roskomnadzor; the American company had sought to recognize as illegal several Roskomnadzor's measures to impose extrajudicial access restrictions on YouTube materials. The lawsuit filed in April pertained to 12 hyperlinks to identical videos that called for participation in rallies held without permission in January 2021. Google argued that Roskomnadzor had no legal basis to block the YouTube links since the Deputy Prosecutor General request received by the agency did not include these links at all, only a link to a similar TikTok video. The court ruled that all actions committed by Roskomnadzor fell within the scope of its legislative powers since the department can take “preventive and suppressive measures,” and since the request of the Prosecutor General's Office mentioned that the information should also be blocked on “other Internet resources.”
On September 6, Roskomnadzor started blocking the Smart Voting website after the Russian Prosecutor General's Office requested that access to information resources associated with the FBK recognized as extremist be restricted. On the first day of the elections, September 17, Apple and Google removed the “Navalny” app, which allowed access to the Smart Voting list, from their stores; Apple also disabled for its Russian users the Private Node service, which masks the IP address and encrypts traffic. On September 18, YouTube blocked three Smart Voting videos, while Google blocked the lists of Smart Voting candidates shared via Google Docs.
Already after the end of the elections, on September 21, supporters of Alexei Navalny started complaining that VKontakte was blocking Russian users’ access to the supporters’ personal pages. These restrictions were also based on the request from the Prosecutor General's Office to block the Smart Voting lists. A few days later, it became known that the request of the Prosecutor General's Office mentioned 173 resources, access to which was to be blocked including pages on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Yandex Zen as well as Telegram channels and websites of individual projects. In October, the Tverskoy District Court ruled that the demands of the Prosecutor General's Office and the actions of Roskomnadzor were legally appropriate.
Let us now shift our attention to other developments in the sphere of enforcement of anti-extremist legislation and related norms.
We know of 13 inappropriate sentences against 16 people issued since the beginning of 2021 under anti-extremist or related criminal articles for various kinds of public statements; one of them was later overturned. It should be noted that, during this time period, law enforcement agencies have also initiated several new criminal cases without due justification.
In February, blogger Alexei Zakruzhny from Chita (known as Lyokha Kochegar) was found guilty under Article 280 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity) and Article 212 Part 3 of the Criminal Code (calls for mass riots) and received a suspended sentence. The case was opened based on a YouTube stream, in which the blogger criticized the pandemic-related ban on visiting cemeteries for the “parents’ day” and called for “demolishing the cordons” at the entrance to the cemetery grounds and, in this way, launching a “bloodless revolution.” We believe that the verdict against Zakruzhny was inappropriate, since the blogger did not call for violent action. The case also failed to convince the Trans-Baikal Regional Court, which overturned the decision of the first instance in May and returned the case to the prosecutor.
In May, the court found Daria Polyudova, a Left Resistance (Levoe soprotivlenie) activist, guilty under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public justification of terrorism on the Internet) and Article 280 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (public calls for extremist activity) and sentenced her to six years in prison. Her charges under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Criminal Code were based on publicly sharing on VKontakte a post that approved of armed separatism. However, the episode in connection with which Polyudova was found guilty under Article 280 Part 1 – for approving the actions of Yevgeny Manyurov, who opened fire at the FSB building in Moscow in 2019 – should not have been regarded as public propaganda, since the activist's statement could be heard by at most a few people. We also believe that Polyudova's punishment is disproportionately harsh.
Krasnodar resident Vladimir Yegorov received a two-year suspended sentence in June under paragraph “b” of Article 213 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism based on hatred or enmity towards a social group). The criminal case was initiated after, during a protest action in January, Yegorov climbed a Kuban Cossacks monument (in the form of a Cossack on horseback), took off his pants, and slapped himself on the buttocks, turning towards the administrative building. The court ruled that Yegorov had committed a crime motivated by hatred and enmity towards the Kuban Cossack Host and the Krasnodar Krai Administration. We believe that neither the Kuban Cossack Host nor the administration of Krasnodar Krai can be considered vulnerable social groups in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred. Additionally, Yegorov's actions should have been classified as disorderly conduct rather than a gross violation of public order requiring criminal prosecution.
Anarchists Dmitry Tsibukovsky and his wife Anastasia Safonova from Chelyabinsk were sentenced to two and a half and two years in prison respectively under Article 213 Part 2 of the Criminal Code). They were found guilty of hooliganism committed by a group of persons by prior conspiracy with the use of weapons and motivated by political hatred and enmity. The charge was related to the anarchists' action on a February night in 2018, when they placed a banner with the inscription “The FSB is the Main Terrorist” on the fence of the Chelyabinsk FSB Office and threw a flare over the fence; a video recording of the action was published by the People's Self-Defense VKontakte community. We believe that the action did not constitute a gross violation of public order, and the charge of hooliganism in this case is unfounded.
It is worth noting that earlier, in January, also in Chelyabinsk, a court acquitted Oksana Yeremina and Yuri Vashurin charged under the same article. The charge was related to breaking through the police cordon during the “He Is Not Our Tsar” protest action, which took place in Chelyabinsk on May 5, 2018. The case file said that the activists, motivated by political hatred of Vladimir Putin, “filled the crossroads” and thus grossly violated public order, expressing obvious disrespect for society. We believed that the action did not constitute a gross violation of public order and agree with the court’s decision.
Activists Olga Misik, Ivan Vorobievsky, and Igor Basharimov were found guilty under Article 214 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (vandalism motivated by political enmity) in Moscow in May. Misik was sentenced to two years of restriction of freedom, and both Vorobyevsky and Basharimov – to one year and nine months of restriction of freedom. The case was opened based on a protest action against the verdict in the “New Greatness” (Novoe velichie) case, which was dubbed by the media as “the booth of federal importance.” In August 2020, the activists poured paint on the wall of the entrance checkpoint booth of the General Prosecutor's Office and decorated it with sanitary pads and a poster with a crude caption. That same night, the offenders also glued sanitary pads and posters to the fence of the Lublinsky District Court. In our opinion, politically motivated vandalism is a form of political struggle, and, unless it is associated with the propaganda of violence and xenophobia, should not be prosecuted as a criminal offense; the administrative punishment would be sufficient to address minor material damage in such cases.
We know about five sentences under Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code (rehabilitation of Nazism) for uploading photographs of Nazis and collaborators to the Memory Bank website to be displayed during the Immortal Regiment online event on May 9 – five people were convicted in Voronezh, Vladivostok, the Nizhny Novgorod Region, the Orenburg Region, and the Chelyabinsk Region. In our opinion, uploading photos of Nazi leaders to a website, in and of itself, constitutes neither a public endorsement of the crimes of Nazism, nor dissemination of any disrespectful information about the Victory Day of May 9 – obviously, the images themselves carry no such data, and the behavior in question is essentially trolling, the motives of which could vary. In one case, in the Irkutsk Region, the convicted offender actually was a clear Nazi sympathizer but made no specific statements when uploading a photo of Andrei Vlasov to the site.
In January, a court sentenced a resident of the Verkhovsky District in the Oryol Region to a fine of 75 thousand rubles under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers) for posting a comment about the Virgin Mary in one of the communities on VKontakte. In our opinion, disrespectful statements on religious topics should not be punished unless they incite hatred of believers, and therefore we opposed the inclusion of insult against religious feelings into the Criminal Code.
In Chita, an 18-year-old local blogger was sentenced in May to 120 hours of community service under Article 148 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers in places specially designed for worship) for publishing a TikTok video, which shows him entering the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, crossing himself and lighting a candle from a church candle. Although Chita resident violated the rules of conduct in the temple, there were no other visitors in the vicinity, and his actions did not attract anyone's attention, caused no damage to religious objects, and, in general, did not pose a significant danger to society, therefore we believe that in this case criminal prosecution was unnecessary.
Another criminal case under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for a TikTok video was terminated in Moscow in July due to the reconciliation of the parties. It was initiated a month earlier against Alina Vlaskina, Maxim Zamyslaev, A. Barsukov, and E. Ispolinova because of an incident that took place on Nagorny Boulevard in the course of shooting a TikTok video. Two young men were pretending to have a feast, using a young woman as a table, with an Orthodox icon standing on the ground nearby. After the case was opened, a woman participant of the incident recorded a video apologizing to the believers. The Russian Orthodox Church accepted the woman’s apology, and the claimants filed a motion to terminate the proceedings.
65 inappropriate verdicts were issued against 98 persons for involvement in banned organizations (vs. 30 verdicts against 64 individuals in the same period of 2020).
Those include five sentences against eleven people under Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code (organizing activities of a terrorist organization or participating in it) for their participation in the Islamic religious party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia as a terrorist one, although there is no information about its actual involvement in terrorist activities. Nine people were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, from 11 to 23 years, in Crimea, Tatarstan, Yekaterinburg, and the Samara Region; seven of them were also sentenced under Part 30 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code for preparation for the forcible seizure of power, three more – under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code for party propaganda, and one – under Article 205.1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (recruiting for terrorist activity).
The remaining 60 sentences against 87 people were imposed for involvement in extremist associations.
Two sentences under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization or participating in it) were issued to followers of Tablighi Jamaat, a peaceful movement of Islamic preachers recognized as extremist in Russia. Three people were fined large sums in Saransk (Mordovia) in August (in October, the appellate court increased their punishment, replacing the fines with incarceration: two offenders received three years and the third one – one year in a minimum-security penal colony); also in August, a resident of the Volgograd Region received a two-year suspended sentence in Saratov.
A woman from Tatarstan, sentenced in August, received a two-year suspended sentence under Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for conducting classes to study the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi; her actions were interpreted as continuing the activities of the banned religious association Nurcular.
Another 55 sentences under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code were issued in different regions of Russia against 80 Jehovah's Witnesses: 24 people received prison terms of up to eight years, 51 received suspended sentences, and only five people were sentenced to fines; eight Jehovah's Witnesses were convicted not only under Article 282.2, but also under Article 282.3 for the financing of extremist activities. Based on the data collected by Jehovah's Witnesses as of mid-September, we can say that by the fall of 2021, the number of their fellow believers who were prosecuted in Russia after the total ban of their organizations in 2017 for continuing their activities and financing their communities reached 542.
Two additional inappropriate sentences related to organizational activities are worth pointing out. A court in Yevpatoria sentenced a Ukrainian citizen, a member of the “Ukrainian Resistance in Crimea” group on VKontakte to a year in a penal colony under Article 282.1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (founding an extremist community). The charges were based on the publication of various materials critical of the annexation of Crimea to Russia and calls for the peninsula’s return to Ukraine. A resident of Bashkiria received a three-year suspended sentence in September under Article 282.3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for transferring money to the mother of the arbitrarily convicted Bashkir nationalist Airat Dilmukhametov – allegedly to support his extremist activities.
Many new criminal cases prosecuting the affiliation with organizations that we consider inappropriately prohibited were opened in 2021 – most commonly they punish the involvement in local Jehovah's Witnesses communities (about 120 defendants), but also in Tablighi Jamaat, Nurcular, the National Bolshevik Party, and the Prisoners Criminal Unity (Arestantskoe Ugolovnoe Yedinstvo, AUE).
Our data on the use of the Code of Administrative Offenses articles aimed at combating extremism is so incomplete as to differ from the real one by an order of magnitude. However, to some extent, it still allows us to observe the general trends.
We know of 65 cases filed in January–September 2021 under Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code for mass distribution (or for possession with intent to distribute) of extremist materials that, in our opinion, were banned without proper justification. Fines were imposed in 59 cases, administrative arrest in two cases, two cases were dropped, and the outcome of two more is unknown. It should be noted that 39 of these 65 cases are associated with sharing of the video “Let’s Remind Crooks and Thieves about Their Manifesto-2002,” created by supporters of Alexei Navalny. This video, created in 2011, merely lists a number of unrealized campaign promises made by United Russia in its 2002 draft manifesto and calls to vote for any other party; it contains no signs of extremism. It was, nevertheless, banned in 2013 and subsequently has become one of the materials from the Federal List to receive particular attention from the law enforcement agencies that monitor social networks. Another 15 cases dealt with inappropriately banned moderate Islamic materials – the Miracles of the Quran video, the Fortress of a Muslim (a collection of daily prayers), and The Future Belongs to Islam by Sayyid Qutb.
31 individuals faced responsibility under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda or public display of Nazi symbols or symbols of extremist organizations) without due justifications. We view sanctions for the display of symbols as inappropriate unless the display had the purpose of advocating extremist ideology. In the period under review, most cases pertained to the posts that utilized Nazi symbols without any intent to advocate Nazism. Activists of the opposition were the most likely targets of these sanctions. The total number of people who faced punishment stands at 27; 14 of them were fined, 13 were placed under administrative arrest; one case was dropped, the outcome of three remaining cases is unknown.
We know of seven cases filed under Article 20.3.2 of the Administrative Code for making public appeals aimed at violating Russia's territorial integrity not accompanied by calls for any violent separatist actions (we view sanctions for peaceful discussions of territorial issues as inappropriate). One such case was terminated, six people were fined (in two of these cases the offenders proposed to separate Moscow from Russia, one case pertained to the status of Crimea, yet another one to the rights of Tatarstan as a republic, one to Chukotka, one to the citizenship of the Buryats, Sakha, Tuvinians and Kalmyks, and one to the autonomy of Siberia).
In January–August, we learned about 15 cases filed under Article 20.3.1 of the Administrative Code on incitement to hatred without due cause. A fine was imposed in eight of those cases, administrative arrest in four, community service in three, and one case was closed. Almost all these cases were based on harsh statements against law enforcement officials, who, in our opinion, do not form a group in need of special protection from manifestations of hatred unless direct calls for violence are involved.
In addition, we recorded approximately 15 cases filed under Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (petty hooliganism) on users of social networks for disseminating information expressing disrespect for the authorities or the society in an indecent form. We believe that Parts 3–5 of Article 20.1 are aimed at suppressing criticism of the authorities, who, prior to the introduction of these amendments, had been adequately protected by other legal norms.
The growth rate of the Federal List of Extremist Materials continues to decline. While the List added 88 entries in January–August of 2020, it only increased by 65 entries (from 5144 to 5208) in January–September 2021. Moreover, while the inappropriately banned materials added in January–August 2020 comprised 23 entries, we only recorded 11 such entries in 2021 – mostly Islamic materials in which we see no signs of inciting religious hatred. It is also worth noting that the Federal List could have increased significantly if the Supreme Court of Tatarstan had failed to overturn the decision of the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court, which in April recognized a list of 163 Islamic publications as extremist. The overwhelming majority of these books were works of Said Nursi in different languages.