Lawmaking : Law Enforcement : Blocking the Flow of Information : Verdicts in Criminal Cases : Calls for Extremist and Terrorist Activities : Prosecutions for Statements about Ukraine and the “Special Military Operation” : Prosecutions for “Rehabilitating Nazism” : Prosecutions for Insulting the Religious Feelings of Believers : Prosecutions for Involvement in Banned Organizations : Other Sanctions : Bans against Organizations
This brief overview focuses on the most important legislative innovations and law enforcement statistics in the field of countering extremism in the period from January to the end of August 2022. Our review is limited only to the part of the legislation and law enforcement practice that we see as leading to excessive restrictions of civil liberties.
The start of hostilities in Ukraine in late February 2022 caused noticeable and widespread discontent in Russian society expressed in public actions on the streets, the stream of open letters, personal public statements, dissemination of information, and various visual protest actions. In this situation, the authorities took various steps to counter the protest, both reactive and proactive; all three branches – the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary – were involved. However, the protest activity continues to this day on a daily basis. Meanwhile, in the months under review, thousands of people have become defendants in criminal and administrative cases related to the enforcement of both the old anti-extremist legislation and the new norms that restrict civil liberties.
On March 4, the State Duma of Russia adopted laws amending the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) and the Criminal Code (CC). The laws were adopted in the second and third readings at once under emergency procedure (not in the form of separate bills, but by amending other bills that had already been adopted in the first reading). They punished calling for sanctions against Russia, spreading fake news about the Russian armed forces, discrediting them, and calling for “obstruction to their use.” The laws were approved by the Federation Council on the same day and signed by the president in the evening. The amendments of March 25 countered spreading fakes and discrediting the work of Russian government agencies abroad and were added to the norms adopted on March 4.
The law adopted on March 4 introduced a new norm, Article 20.3.3 CAO, establishing liability for “public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to protect the interests of the country and its citizens or to maintain international peace and security, including public calls for preventing the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for the indicated purposes.” In accordance with the amendments to the CC, repeated violation within a year makes offenders liable under a new Article 280.3 CC with the maximum punishment of imprisonment for up to five years.
The same amendments of early March added Article 20.3.4 to the CAO that punishes calls for imposing or extending political or economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, citizens of the Russian Federation, or Russian legal entities. Penalty for the first such violation within a year takes the form of a fine, and criminal liability under the new Article 284.2 СС, which provides for imprisonment of up to three years, follows for repeated violations.
We believe that norms such as those described above should not become laws, since they unduly restrict freedom of expression, and opinions on issues of particular public importance. We see persecution for critical statements regarding the official political course and specific actions of the authorities, including statements on the events in Ukraine, as inappropriate, unless such statements contain calls for violence or other clearly illegal (in the generally accepted sense) actions.
Another newly adopted norm we view as unnecessary, given that the Criminal Code already provides punishment for libel, is Article 207.3 СС, which establishes responsibility for “public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of deliberately false information containing data on the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for protection of the interests of the country and its citizens and for keeping international peace and security.” The article has three parts, and the punishment under it, depending on the aggravating circumstances, varies from a fine of 700 thousand rubles to 15 years in prison if the act led to grave consequences. According to OVD-Info, at least 100 such cases have already been initiated as of mid-September. For some defendants the cases included a hate motive, moving them into the sphere of anti-extremist law enforcement. However, since SOVA Center has no expert knowledge needed to verify the accuracy of information about the activities of the Russian armed forces abroad, we do not include sanctions under this article in our monitoring.
On March 14, the President signed the law on remote electronic voting. The corresponding bill was submitted to the State Duma in December 2021 and adopted in the first reading in late January, but by its second reading on March 10, it was significantly amended. Among its other provisions, the law extends the loss of passive suffrage to everyone convicted of extremist crimes for a five-year period from the day the conviction is removed or extinguished. At the same time, the norm on depriving individuals involved in the activities of extremist or terrorist organizations of passive suffrage for a period of three to five years after the organization’s ban (depending on their status in the organization) was extended to presidential elections. The legal norms adopted in April 2021, which require candidates to inform the voters in various formats about their “foreign agent” status or their “affiliation with a person or entity performing the functions of a foreign agent,” were also extended to presidential elections.
On April 16, a bill establishing administrative responsibility for equating the “goals, decisions and actions” of the leadership of the USSR and Nazi Germany and for “denying the decisive role of the Soviet people” in the defeat of the Third Reich was signed into law. A new legal norm, Article 13.48, has been added to the CAO. The first part of this article punishes citizens with a fine of one to two thousand rubles or arrest for up to 15 days, officials – with a fine of two to four thousand rubles, and legal entities – from 10 to 50 thousand rubles. Repeated violation of the ban entails liability under the second part of the article, which provides for a fine of two and a half to five thousand rubles or arrest for up to 15 days for citizens, a fine from five to 20 thousand, or disqualification for a period of six months to a year for officials and a fine of 50 to 100 thousand rubles or suspension of activities for up to 90 days for legal entities. The Roskomnadzor staff and the police can file reports under Article 13.48, and the prosecutors are empowered to open the corresponding cases. The wording of the new article contains no explanations as to which statements can be interpreted as “equating actions” and “denial of the decisive role.” This legal norm represented a new step in restricting freedom of the peaceful historical discussion.
On June 11, Vladimir Putin signed laws amending the Criminal Procedure Code and other legislative acts. They provide for terminating Russia's execution of the judgments issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after March 15, 2022. Meanwhile, the compensations awarded by the ECHR decisions issued prior to this date will continue to be paid out until 2023. The ECHR had previously ruled that the Russian Federation would cease to be a High Contracting Party to the European Convention on Human Rights only as of September 16, 2022, as prescribed by the Convention, and that the court would continue to consider all complaints against Russia pertaining to events that occurred before that date. Moreover, it was assumed that Russia would have to comply with the ECHR’s judgments adopted even if issued after September 16.
On July 14, the president signed several laws adopted by the State Duma in June–early July.
Amendments to the state security legislation were signed into law introducing new articles into the Criminal Code (CC) to provide penalties for telecommunications operators who repeatedly violate the procedure of installation, operation and modernization of technical means of countering threats (tekhnicheskikh sredstv protivodeystviya ugrozam, TSPU) – Roskomnadzor equipment that Russian internet providers are required to install at their facilities in order to allow for user traffic control. Penalties are also envisioned for Russian citizens who establish and maintain relations of “cooperation on a confidential basis with a representative of a foreign state, international or foreign organization in order to assist them in activities knowingly directed against the security of the Russian Federation” (if their actions do not constitute a treason). Punishable actions also include public calls to carry out activities directed against state security and violating the requirement to protect state secrets by leaving the country or transporting data storage media abroad.
The law also includes provisions that establish criminal liability for the following actions: participation by citizens or stateless persons residing in Russia in any armed conflicts abroad that “contradict the interests of the Russian Federation”; defecting to the enemy during an armed conflict; transferring, gathering, stealing or storing information that can be used against the Russian armed forces during an armed conflict; participation in activities of an undesirable organization not only in Russia but also on any other territory. The punishment for mercenarism was also increased.
The same law provides for “partial criminalization” of propaganda, display or production of banned symbols. It introduces a new Criminal Code article, Article 282.4 CC (repeated propaganda or public display of Nazi attributes or symbols, or attributes or symbols of extremist organizations or other attributes or symbols, propaganda or public demonstration of which is prohibited by federal laws) thus criminalizing repeated violations of Article 20.3 CAO. The new article provides harsh penalties ranging from a fine of 600 thousand rubles to four years behind bars.
The law creating a databank of extremist materials and the corresponding court decisions as well as a separate register of persons involved in the activities of extremist or terrorist organizations was signed as well (we have no information so far on whether the databank and the register have been established).
Another law signed on July 14 expanded the extrajudicial blocking mechanisms upon request of the Prosecutor General's Office. Resources can now be blocked for discrediting the activities of the Russian armed forces and government agencies abroad, spreading “fakes” about them, or calling for sanctions against Russia and its citizens. In addition, the Prosecutor General's Office can now block the websites (or their mirrors) permanently through Roskomnadzor for repeatedly posting on their pages any type of illegal information blocked either extrajudicially or by court decisions (except for information discrediting honor and dignity, pirated content and violations of the law on personal data). The bill states that the access restrictions for resources blocked for repeated violations can never be lifted.
The same law drastically expands the powers of the Prosecutor General's Office concerning mass media. The agency now has the right to prohibit the activities of foreign media in Russia as a response to other countries closing down Russian media outlets, in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; these media outlets will have their registration and broadcasting license revoked. Once the prosecutor's office decides to terminate the activities of a foreign media outlet, the ban is expected to encompass the production and distribution of its informational materials, including via other mass media and the Internet, as well as possession of such materials with the intent to distribute them. The Prosecutor General's Office will also have the right to temporarily or permanently suspend without trial registration and broadcasting licenses of Russian media resources for disseminating any “inaccurate information,” “discrediting” the actions of the Armed Forces and officials abroad, as well as for “disrespecting the authorities,” calling for sanctions, rallies or riots, and “propaganda, rationalization and (or) justification” of extremism. Media resources and their staff will also face responsibility for reprinting materials from other mass media that contain any such information. The first two violations lead to suspension of the media activities for up to three and up to six months respectively, but the suspension can be rescinded earlier by Roskomnadzor’s decision. In case of “repeated” dissemination of illegal information, the Prosecutor General's Office will permanently terminate the registration and broadcasting license of the implicated media outlets without a court decision. This law placed the activities of Russia’s mass media under total control of the Prosecutor General's Office and created the conditions for imposing the information blockade of the country from within.
Another law signed on July 14 stipulated administrative liability for violating blocking orders or the “landing” legislation for foreign Internet companies in Russia. The law introduced a number of changes to the CAO. Telecommunication operators now face more severe penalties for repeated failure to block or unblock Internet resources and for violating the installation procedure for TSPU. Another newly introduced CAO article provided for liability in case of violation of the requirements for passing traffic through TSPU. The third violation under both articles entails criminal liability. Articles newly included in the CAO impose penalties for violating the established rules on “foreign persons” and Russian citizens who perform online operations on behalf of companies subject to “landing” in Russia. Foreigners who violate the ban on collecting personal data are also liable under the new legislation. The article that penalizes violations of the law on advertising has been amended with added punishment for dissemination of advertisements by “foreign entities” or on the websites of “foreign entities” in violation of Roskomnadzor bans. Hosting providers who fail to provide reliable information about the owner of a resource subject to “landing” now face penalties under the article punishing for failure to submit reports to Roskomnadzor. The administrative Article on search engines’ responsibility was supplemented with several new parts that punish search engines for failure to inform users that a foreign company has violated Russian law or to exclude links to such companies as well as for repeated violations. All the above-mentioned provisions of the CAO stipulate large fines that can be as high as millions of rubles for legal entities.
On July 14, the president also signed a law that consolidates and systematizes numerous previously adopted norms that regulate the activities of various “foreign agents.” It is due to enter into force on December 1, 2022. The law states that a “foreign agent” (rather than a person or association “acting as a foreign agent,” as it was previously stated) is a status that can be assigned to a Russian or foreign (the latter is also a new addition) individual or legal entity (not only an NPO, as in the prior version) or even to a group of persons who have received “support” and (or) are “under other forms of foreign influence” and carry out certain activities. The bill defines foreign influence as not only any financial, property, organizational, methodological, scientific, technical, or other such assistance received from foreign sources, but also “influencing a person, including through coercion, persuasion and (or) other means.” The types of activities that provide the grounds for recognizing a person as a “foreign agent” include political activity (in a very broad definition given in the law on NGOs), targeted collection of information on Russia’s military and military technology activities, “dissemination of messages and materials intended for an unlimited circle of people, and (or) participation in the creation of such messages and materials,” or financing of any such activity. The exceptions to “political activity” include activities in the sphere of science, culture, art, healthcare, social services and social protection, protection of human life, motherhood, fatherhood and childhood, family and traditional family values, social support for the disabled, promotion of healthy lifestyles, environmental protection, and charity. However, any such activity will not be considered “political” only inasmuch as it “does not contradict the national interests of the Russian Federation, the foundations of the public order of the Russian Federation, and other values protected by the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”
Contrary to the legislators’ repeated assurances that the “foreign agent” status does not imply discrimination, the law includes a list of restrictions imposed on “foreign agents,” some of which were not legally mandated previously. According to the new law, individuals listed in the register cannot be appointed to official positions, perform certain functions in public official bodies, or participate in election campaigns and referendums (including nominations of or support for candidates). A public official or an individual recognized as a “foreign agent” may be denied access to state secrets. Foreign agents may not organize or sponsor public events or perform educational activities “aimed at minors and (or) pedagogical activities in state and municipal educational organizations.” They are not allowed to produce information products for minors, act as experts in state environmental reviews, operate significant objects of critical information infrastructure or ensure their safety. A number of financial restrictions have been imposed as well. Foreign agents are not entitled to state financial support (including those related to creative endeavors). The funds of associations recognized as “foreign agents” may not be insured. Foreign agents are not allowed to use the simplified system of taxation, accounting and reporting and are subject to the same restrictions as foreign citizens who are not allowed to invest in business entities of strategic importance for the country’s defense and security.
Information about “individuals affiliated with ‘foreign agents’” (the document describes who should be classed as such, including all employees of organizations recognized as “foreign agents”) also has to be collected in the new unified register, although they are not subject to requirements and restrictions stipulated for actual “foreign agents.”
The law also describes the obligations of “foreign agents” to label materials related to their foreign agent activities and relevant interactions with government agencies (labeling of personal materials by individuals is not required) and to compile and submit regular reports to government agencies. Under the law, the Russian government will determine the specifics of labeling materials. Procedures, under which state bodies should carry out measures to control the activities of “foreign agents” and identify possible legal violations are described as well, including the procedures for scheduled and unscheduled inspections. The Ministry of Justice is expected to provide “foreign agents” with binding instructions to be executed within a month. The law lists possible sanctions for violations including administrative and criminal responsibility, liquidation of the association, and blocking information resources that belong to “foreign agents."
In early June, another draft law on foreign agents, of a rather technical nature, was submitted to the State Duma. It was adopted in the first reading on July 5. The draft law envisions amendments to several laws needed for putting into effect the above-mentioned restrictions for “foreign agents.” The document included amendments to the federal law “On meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets,” which imply significant territorial restrictions of the right to hold meetings not only for “foreign agents” but for all citizens.
Meanwhile, in June the ECHR issued a judgment in the сase of Ecodefence and Others v. Russia, based on a number of complaints by Russian NGOs (61 applicants, including the SOVA Center) recognized as entities performing the functions of a “foreign agent.” The applicants contested the status as well as various restrictions and sanctions prescribed in the Foreign Agents Act. The NGOs recognized as “foreign agents” faced significant difficulties in their work; some of them had to disband, and some were eliminated by the state. The ECHR ruled that the Russian government has not shown relevant and sufficient reasons for creating a special “foreign agent” status, imposing additional reporting and accounting requirements on organizations registered as “foreign agents,” restricting their access to funding options, and punishing any breaches of the Foreign Agents Act in an unpredictable and disproportionately severe manner. The cumulative result of these restrictions – whether by design or effect – is a legal regime that places a significant “chilling effect” on the search or acceptance of any amount of foreign funding, however insignificant, in a context where opportunities for domestic funding are rather limited, especially with regard to politically or socially sensitive topics or domestically unpopular causes. The ECHR concluded that these measures could not be considered “necessary in a democratic society,” and, therefore, Russia violated the applicants’ right to freedom of assembly and association, guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention interpreted in the light of Article 10 on the right to freedom of expression. The applicants were awarded compensation, which they will not receive at this time due to Russia’s refusal to comply with the ECHR decisions issued after March 15, 2022.
Through the efforts of the authorities, the information space in Russia changed dramatically in March 2022. Since late February, mass media (including those previously recognized as “foreign agents”) and social and political resources have been bombarded with claims from state agencies. Roskomnadzor has started blocking resources at the request of the Prosecutor General's Office in accordance with Article 15.3 of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection,” which provides for restricting access to materials containing, in particular, “inaccurate socially significant information distributed under the guise of reliable messages,” as well as calls for public actions without permits, calls for extremism, and support for or justification of extremist activity. On the basis of the decision of the Prosecutor General's Office of February 24, hundreds of websites were blocked in the following weeks, including Ukrainian resources, websites of BBC, Deutsche Welle, Bilt, BBC Russian Service, Voice of America, all Radio Liberty websites as well as Meduza, Bellingcat Mediazona, Novye Izvestiya, Bumaga, Echo of the Caucasus, Caucasian Knot, Snob, 7X7, TJournal, The Village, Republic and many others. The Euronews TV channel was taken off the air. The following months brought new restrictions, including the ones that utilized new legislation on disseminating false or defamatory information about the use of the military. Access was blocked to major foreign publications and channels, such as the Telegraph, Die Welt and Radio France Internationale among others.
Upon request from Roskomnadzor, several media outlets were forced to remove or edit materials about the events in Ukraine. During March, under pressure from the authorities, many media outlets had to stop their operations in one way or another, among them Novaya Gazeta, which later, in September, had its license revoked (the newspaper’s employees created a new media outlet abroad, which was immediately blocked in Russia) and the Echo of Moscow radio station, which was taken off the air and then liquidated by the decision of its board of directors, including its website and social media accounts. TV Rain was suspended. Colta and Znak.com were also suspended (the website of the latter was completely shut down). The BBC Russian Service announced that its editorial office would continue its work outside the country. American TV channels CBS News and ABC News, CNN and Bloomberg news agencies, Canadian CBC, and German ARD and ZDF channels also announced that they were terminating their work in Russia.
The websites of leading international human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were blocked as well. The representative offices of these organizations were later closed by order of the Ministry of Justice along with 13 others. They were removed from the register of branches and representative offices of international organizations and foreign non-profit non-governmental organizations for unspecified violations.
Censorship has also affected social networks. On March 4, Facebook and Twitter were blocked under the law on “sanctions” for unreasonably restricting the distribution of Russian mass media materials. Roskomnadzor explained that the ruling followed Facebook’s decision to block the pages of RIA Novosti, Zvezda, Sputnik, RT, Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru and Twitter’s dissemination of “inaccurate socially significant information on the subject of a special military operation in Ukraine.” Roskomnadzor also demanded that the TikTok administration explain the removal of RIA Novosti stories from its platform, but TikTok proactively limited its operations in Russia on March 6 in response to the law on fakes. Then, on March 14, Instagram was blocked in Russia for publishing calls for violent actions against the Russian military.
On March 11, the Prosecutor General's Office filed a claim with the Supreme Court to recognize Meta Platforms Inc., the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as an extremist company. Apparently, the court was initially supposed to recognize all the activities of the company as extremist, but then the demands were reduced to distribution of Facebook and Instagram. On the same day, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against unnamed employees of the corporation under Article 280 CC (calls for extremism) and Article 205.1 CC (contributing to terrorist activity). The case was based on the statement made on that day by the Meta leadership – the corporation announced its decision not to delete posts that called for violent actions against the Russian troops located on the Ukrainian territory, indicating, however, that the ban on calls to violence against other citizens of Russia still stands. Meta later changed its position and declared Russophobia and calls for violence against citizens of the Russian Federation unacceptable, but this change did not affect the court's decision.
The court ruled to ban Meta's activities related to the “distribution of its products, Facebook and Instagram, on the territory of the Russian Federation due to their extremist activities.” The decision against Meta is unique in the history of Russian legal proceedings in extremism-related cases, since in this case, it was the organization’s activities that were recognized as extremist, but not the organization itself, its websites or its individual materials. Since the current Russian legislation does not provide for such a ban, its legal consequences are unclear – recognizing Meta's activities as extremist created a situation of legal uncertainty. Although the court decision explicitly stated that the measures of judicial protection stipulated in it “do not limit the use of Meta's software products by individuals and legal entities not participating in activities prohibited by law,” Russian users of Facebook and Instagram still become potential offenders. This situation creates uncertainty and fear – probably exactly the effect the authorities have been counting on, since their efforts are intended to force citizens to switch to Russian platforms controlled by the law enforcement.
Additional media platforms, such as Depositphotos, Patreon, and Grammarly, were blocked in the following months.
In late August, the Roskomsvoboda project reported that, based on the results of its monitoring of the Unified Register of Banned Websites, about seven thousand websites had been blocked for publishing information about the special military operation, both at the request of the Prosecutor General's Office and based on court decisions. Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov said in early August that “after the start of the special military operation,” his department “has stepped up its work on countering the calls to extremism, terrorism or riots and the spread of fake news on the Internet,” and satisfied more than 340 prosecutorial requests to block unreliable publicly significant information about the special military operation, removing or blocking about 138 thousands of Internet resources.” Thus, not all the blocked resources are added to the registry; this happens, among other reasons, because site owners often promptly delete the information that the law enforcement deems problematic.
Verdicts in Criminal Cases
We know of only 18 inappropriate sentences against 21 people since the beginning of 2022 under anti-extremist or similar criminal articles for various kinds of public statements (13 such cases against 16 people were recorded in the comparable period of 2021). It should be noted that, during this period, law enforcement agencies have also initiated a number of new criminal cases without due justification – we counted at least 46 of those, primarily under the charges of rehabilitation of Nazism, vandalism motivated by political hatred, or repeated discrediting of the activities of the armed forces abroad.
Calls for Extremist and Terrorist ActivitiesBlogger Alexei Zakruzhny (Lyokha Kochegar) from Chita was once again found guilty under Article 280 Part 2 CC (public calls for extremist activity on the Internet) and Article 212 Part 3 CC (calls for riots) and received a suspended sentence of two years and two months. In March, a regional court reduced his sentence by a month. 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 thus launching a “bloodless revolution.” We consider this sentence inappropriate, since, in our opinion, Zakruzhny's statement should not be interpreted as a socially dangerous call to violent actions.
In Smolensk, local opposition blogger Sergei Komandirov was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars, fined 30 thousand rubles and deprived of his right to post materials on the Internet for five years under an aggregation of several Criminal Code articles. All the charges were related to Komandirov’s posts on his public page “We Demand Answers” on VKontakte. The most severe charges were under Article 205.2 Part 2 CC (public justification of terrorism on the Internet; three counts) for his posts that could, in fact, be seen as calls for a violent change of power. However, according to the available information, neither Komandirov personally nor his readers have ever taken any steps toward violent methods of struggle – that is, the blogger’s statements presented no significant public danger, and his long prison term seems to be manifestly disproportionate. We are also inclined to consider the charge under Article 282 Part 2 CC inappropriate; it was brought against Komandirov in connection with his post about a protester detained along with her minor daughter. Komandirov negatively characterized law enforcement officers and quoted another blogger about the inevitability of the impending bloodshed. Komandirov's post contained no explicit calls for violence, and the quote cited in the post can be more aptly characterized as a pessimistic forecast for the country's social and political future. We also believe that law enforcement officers do not constitute a protected social group; on the contrary, as the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted, they should be exceptionally tolerant of criticism unless it includes a real threat of violence. We consider the charge against Komandirov under Article 354.1 CC inappropriate (see below). In total, we regard the sentence issued against the blogger as questionable.
In July, a court in St. Petersburg dismissed the criminal case against video blogger Yuri Khovansky under Article 205.2 Part 1 CC (public justification of terrorism) due to the expiry of the limitation period. The case was based on the song performed by Khovansky online about the terrorist attack that took place during the performance of the Nord-Ost musical in 2002. We believe that there were no valid reasons for prosecuting the blogger. Khovansky’s song, in which he ridiculed in a crude manner the discourse that had developed around the subject of terrorism, was obviously provocative, and relatives of those killed in the terrorist attack on the Dubrovka theater may find such creative output offensive. A discussion about the ethics and acceptability of such “dark humor” would be a completely natural social reaction. However, the extent of the statement’s public danger is extremely small, and the criminal article that covers justification of terrorism does not imply penalties for insults or unethical irony.
Prosecutions for Statements about Ukraine and the “Special Military Operation”
According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, as of the second half of August, the total number of cases considered by courts under Article 20.3.3 CAO has reached 3500. People face sanctions for displaying posters, for slogans on their clothes, offline and online statements, distribution of printed materials, graffiti on walls, etc.
In May, the first verdict under Article 280.3 Part 1 CC for repeated public actions aimed at discrediting Russian armed forces (in combination with involving a minor in committing a crime) was issued in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria). Zaurbek Zhambekov was found guilty and received a two-year suspended sentence with a two-year sentence postponement and a fine of 30,000 rubles that could be paid in installments. The criminal case against Zhambekov was opened after Zhambekov had asked his teenage daughter to rip a Z-shaped St. George’s ribbon off a car at a city parking lot; he had been previously fined under Article 20.3.3 Part 1 CAO for his social network posts.
According to our information, at least a dozen of such criminal cases were initiated in April-August 2022.
In addition, we know of 16 criminal cases, some involving more than one person, initiated under Article 214 Part 2 CC (vandalism motivated by political or ideological hatred) in connection with protests against the “special military operation.” As a rule, the offenses involve writing anti-war or pro-Ukrainian slogans in public places or damaging posters dedicated to the special military operation. We include in our monitoring only the cases, in which law enforcement agencies charge defendants with vandalism motivated by ideological or political hostility, although the presence or absence of the hostility motive in such cases obviously depends solely on the discretion of specific law enforcement officers, and not on the actual circumstances of a particular incident. A verdict in one of the reported cases was issued in August. A court in St. Petersburg sentenced Nikita Chirkov to a year of restriction of freedom. On March 23, Chirkov painted graffiti – a crossed-out letter “Z,” an equal sign, and a swastika in black paint – on the pedestal of the monument to Nikolai Chernyshevsky.
We doubt the validity of prosecution for vandalism motivated by political or ideological hatred. In most cases, these actions represent a form of political propaganda, albeit associated with inflicting material damage. Manifestations and even incitement of political hostility are not criminalized per se, so, unless political vandalism is associated with propaganda of violence and xenophobia, the degree of its public danger depends on the extent of material damage caused by it. We believe that the cases, in which property damage is minor, should be terminated for insignificance. If a case cannot be dropped but the damage is still relatively small, it might be helpful to introduce an article similar to Article 7.17 CAO covering the destruction or damage of other people's property or to clarify the existing article by adding vandalism that did not cause major damage.
We view as inappropriate three cases initiated in the period under review under Article 213 Part 2 CC (hooliganism motivated by political or ideological hatred) for public anti-war actions that should not have been interpreted as a gross violation of public order and disrespect for society.
Prosecutions for “Rehabilitating Nazism”
In 2022, law enforcement agencies continued to prosecute citizens under Article 354.1 CC for rehabilitation of Nazism. We know more than a dozen people who became defendants in new inappropriately initiated criminal cases in January–August 2022. We consider 13 sentences against 16 people inappropriate.
Some of the cases were opened for attempts to upload, on the eve of May 9, photographs of various Third Reich leaders and their well-known collaborators to the Memory Bank website (sometimes under other names) to be displayed during the Immortal Regiment online event. We know of six such sentences. Four people – Andrei Shabanov from Samara, Denis Vorontsov from Volgograd, Vitaly Michurin from Smolensk and Georgy Pesterev from Arkhangelsk – were convicted under Article 354.1 Part 1 CC (publicly denying the facts or justifying the crimes established by the Nuremberg Tribunal, dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War or about veterans of the Great Patriotic War). Georgy Gromada from St. Petersburg was found guilty under Article 354.1 Part 3 CC as amended in 2020 (dissemination of information expressing clear disrespect for society about Russia’s days of military glory and memorable dates related to the defense of the Fatherland, as well as desecration of symbols of Russian military glory). Eduard Scherbakov from Tyumen was sentenced under Article 354.1 Part 4 CC, which punishes for the same acts as Part 3 in the previous edition, only when committed on the Internet, to six months in an open prison, since he was also convicted under Article 207.3 Part 1 CC for spreading fakes about the army. Michurin received a suspended sentence of a year and a half, Gromada was sentenced to 300 hours of compulsory work, and Vorontsov, Pesterev and Shabanov were fined 300, 250 and 60 thousand rubles, respectively. Shabanov’s punishment turned out to be the most lenient, despite the fact that he was recognized also guilty under Article 354.1 Part 3 CC, see below. Ten similar cases – seven in St. Petersburg, two in the Tver region and one in Ulyanovsk – were discontinued by the courts due to the expiry of the limitation period. We believe that the qualification of the act of uploading Nazi photos to the Immortal Regiment websites under Article 354.1 CC is inappropriate. Unless such actions are accompanied by Nazi propaganda they should not be interpreted as justifying Nazism or disseminating 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.
Four of the convictions were related to social media posts. Three of them were issued for criticism of the Victory Day celebration not intended as a justification of Nazism. The above-mentioned Andrey Shabanov from Samara and Smolensk blogger Sergey Komandirov were convicted under Article 354.1 Part 3 CC for such statements, as well as another Smolensk resident, Alexei Chervyakov sentenced to a year and ten months in an open prison – under Article 354.1 Part 2 paragraph “c” and Part 4 CC (dissemination of deliberately false information about veterans of the Great Patriotic War, committed publicly using the Internet, as well as humiliation of the honor and dignity of a veteran of the Great Patriotic War on the Internet). The fourth sentence was issued to activist Andrei Polyakov from Tambov, who faced a fine of 250 thousand rubles under Article 354.1 Part 1 CC for posts about the “scorched earth” order and a number of other orders issued by the authorities during the Second World War. According to law enforcement agencies and the court, he equated the actions of the leadership of the USSR, the Red Army and Soviet guerilla fighters with the actions of Hitler and the Nazi troops and thus spread false information about the war-time activities of the USSR. We believe that no legislation should limit the dissemination of any information about the activities of the USSR.
Four verdicts against seven people were issued for desecration of the Eternal Flame under Article 354.1 Part 4 CC. The Stavropol Regional Court sentenced a teenager who urinated on the Eternal Flame in Nevinnomyssk to a year in a juvenile correctional colony; his two companions, Andrei Yenenko and Arsen Lekarev received two and a half and two years respectively in a settlement colony. Kirill Yefimov from Maloyaroslavets of the Kaluga Region was sentenced to two years in a penal colony for a similar act. In Mari El, three Turkish citizens – Ercan Kargın, Mustafa Ar and Ibrahim Aytekin – were sentenced to a year of imprisonment in a settlement colony for wiping their feet on the surface of the Eternal Flame pedestal in Yoshkar-Ola.
While accepting that “desecration” of monuments is in most cases worthy of public condemnation, we nevertheless believe that criminal prosecution can be justified only for acts that pose a significant danger to society, and in such cases, it is already covered under Article 214 CC (vandalism). Article 354.1 CC provides for a more severe maximum punishment for the desecration of symbols of military glory, which we see as disproportionate to the degree of public danger of such actions. In addition, Russian legislation has yet to define the list of symbols of military glory. As for insulting the memory of non-specified “defenders of the Fatherland,” we believe that criminal prosecution for acts defined in such abstract categories fails to meet the international legal human rights standards.
Prosecutions for Insulting the Religious Feelings of Believers
Prosecution under Article 148 Part 1 CC (insulting the religious feelings of believers) in the period under review was based primarily on various videos and photos of people, either naked to some extent or with their underwear visible, taken near places of worship and published on social networks, as well as on atheistic or anti-clerical posts and comments. As a reminder, we see no need to prosecute citizens for publishing “blasphemous” materials, unless they contain aggressive appeals against believers. In our opinion, such publications pose no danger to society, and sanctions for their distribution can be regarded as an unreasonable interference with freedom of expression with respect to religion. We are also convinced that the concept of insulting the feelings of believers, introduced into Article 148 CC, does not and cannot have a clear legal meaning and should be excluded from the legislation.
We classify three sentences under Article 148 CC against three people as inappropriate. Blogger Irina Volkova from St. Petersburg was sentenced in March to 180 hours of community service for her Instagram photo. The image shows her squatting with her back to the camera, against the background of St. Isaac's Cathedral, with her skirt pulled up and her underwear visible. In May, Natalya Maslennikova from Kaluga was fined 25,000 rubles for her photo against the background of Transfiguration (Preobrazhenskaya) Church with her skirt pulled up, which she posted on her Instagram and Twitter accounts in 2021. Photographer Sergei Kondratiev from St. Petersburg was fined 15 thousand rubles for an Instagram video, in which he kissed a man in front of the St. Petersburg Trinity Church. The video was accompanied by the singing of the obscene text stylized after liturgical music. At the same time, in Moscow, the court dismissed the case against Maria Katanova and six other people who faced charges for their participation in the creation of a video posted online by Katanova. In the video, a model wearing a balaclava, an open coat, a niqab and underwear posed for a cameraman against the backdrop of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. We classify as inappropriate four new cases initiated between January and the end of August under Article 148 Part 1 CC.
Prosecutions for Involvement in Banned Organizations
51 inappropriate sentences were issued against 111 persons for their involvement in banned organizations (vs. 65 verdicts against 98 individuals for the same period in 2021).
12 of these sentences were issued under Article 205.5 CC (organizing activities of a terrorist organization or participating in it) for participation in the Islamic religious party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization, although there is no information about its actual involvement in terrorist activities. 37 people were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Eight sentences against 23 people were issued in Crimea, the remaining ones pertained to residents of the Kemerovo Region, Penza, Tyumen, Tatarstan and Moscow. 23 of the offenders were also sentenced under Part 30 and Article 278 CC for preparation for the forcible seizure of power.
The remaining 39 known inappropriate sentences against 74 people were issued for their involvement in extremist associations.
Four sentences under Article 282.2 CC (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. In January, a verdict under Article 282.2 Part 2 CC was issued to three Muslims in Omsk; in March, the regional court increased the severity of the punishment replacing the fine with two years in a penal colony for one of them and with a suspended sentence of one and a half years for two others. In April, an inmate from Bashkortostan was convicted in Rubtsovsk under Article 282.2 Part 2 and Article 282.2 Part 1.1 CC (involvement of others in the activities of an extremist organization) for secretly spreading the teachings of Tablighi Jamaat among other inmates. The Altai Regional Court, having reviewed the sentence on appeal and taking his previous term into account, sentenced him to five years and 20 days of imprisonment to be served in a maximum-security penal colony. In Saratov, two Muslims were sentenced to two years in prison each.
We know of 35 verdicts issued in different regions of Russia against 68 Jehovah's Witnesses: 34 of them against 67 people under Article 282.2 CC (11 believers were also convicted under Article 282.3 CC for financing of extremist activities) and one – under Article 282.3 CC. 24 people received real prison terms, 37 – suspended sentences, and only seven people were sentenced to fines. Three believers were acquitted, the sentences of three more are under review, and the courts stopped the prosecution against two believers due to their death.
It is worth pointing out that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a ruling in the case of Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia in early June. The judgment considered 20 complaints by Jehovah's Witnesses filed between 2010 and 2019; the total number of applicants was 1,444, including 1,014 individuals and 430 legal entities. The ECHR considered only a few of the applicants' complaints in detail, indicating that the rest did not require special consideration because the findings would apply to all similar situations. The applicants complained about the liquidation of several of their local organizations, the subsequent recognition of the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia along with 395 local communities as extremist organizations, the bans against their religious literature and the official website, and criminal prosecution and administrative sanctions against believers. The ECHR found that by prosecuting Jehovah's Witnesses Russia was violating several articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention) – Article 9 on freedom of conscience, Article 10 on freedom of expression, Article 11 on freedom of assembly and association, as well as Article 5 (the right to liberty and security of person) and Article 1 (protection of property) of the Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention. It should be noted that, even though Russia has refused to execute ECHR decisions made after March 15, the Convention itself prescribes a different course of action. According to Article 58 Part 2, denunciation does not release a party from its obligations with respect to any action, violating such obligations and committed by that party before the effective denunciation date.
Meanwhile, in January–August 2022, at least 50 Jehovah's Witnesses became defendants in new criminal cases. Based on the data collected by Jehovah's Witnesses, we can say that, as of mid-August, the number of their fellow believers who faced criminal prosecution in Russia for continuing the activities and financing of their communities after the total ban of 2017 reached at least 639.
In Dagestan, at least six people became defendants in criminal cases under Article 282.2 CC for holding meetings to study the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi. These meetings were interpreted as a continuation of the activities of the religious association Nurcular, which, in our opinion, was banned without proper justification.
It should also be noted that three criminal cases under Article 282.2 CC were initiated in the Kemerovo region, Barnaul and Novosibirsk based on activities of Alla-Ayat groups. At least five women were implicated in these cases. Alla-Ayat followers practice specific methods of treatment for all illnesses – using special tea, saying the “life formula,” invoking the sun energy and applying to sore spots the issues of the magazine published by the doctrine’s founders (several issues of this publication were recognized as extremist for promoting the superiority of the doctrine’s adherents over other people). We believe that, although law enforcement agencies may find the activities of Alla-Ayat followers reprehensible, there were no grounds for banning it as an extremist organization and prosecuting its members under Article 282.2 CC.
According to our information, at least 28 people became defendants in new criminal cases of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir under Articles 205.5 and 205.2 CC.
One such case was opened against Bakhrom Khamroev, a member of the Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC), detained on February 24 in Moscow and arrested the next day on charges of publicly justifying terrorism (Article 205.2 CC). According to the investigating authorities, Khamroev promoted the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir in several Facebook posts. Khamroev has been defending the rights of migrants from Central Asia and Russian Muslims for many years, in particular those charged with participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir. He has always vehemently denied any personal involvement in the organization. In early March, searches were carried out in the offices of the International Memorial, the Memorial HRC and the Civic Assistance (Grazhdanskoye Sodeystvie) Committee in Moscow, whose head Svetlana Gannushkina was interrogated as a witness in the case. The searches took place against the backdrop of the widening pressure campaign against Memorial. In December 2021, the court decided to liquidate the International Memorial and the Memorial HRC for their systematic violation of the “foreign agents” legislation when distributing their materials. The decision on the liquidation of the International Memorial was approved by the appellate court in late February 2022, and the decision regarding the Memorial HRC – in early April. We consider the claims against both organizations inappropriate.
Criminal cases for involvement in banned associations during this period were opened not only against believers but also against political activists, specifically against supporters of Alexei Navalny. In 2022, 10 more people became defendants in a criminal case under Article 282.1 initiated back in September 2021. They were charged with organizing an extremist community and involvement in it. The total number of defendants reached 19, Navalny included. According to the investigation, Navalny created an “extremist community “ no later than 2014 to discredit the authorities and organize protest actions that develop into mass riots; then, with the help of his associates, he expanded it by promoting its activities on the Internet. In addition, three people were charged under Article 282.3 Part 1 CC for funding Navalny's organizations. We believe that there were no legal grounds for banning Navalny's organizations as extremist, and therefore attempts to charge him and his supporters with creating these organizations for extremist purposes and with financing extremist activities are inappropriate.
We would like to remind you that our data on the use of the CAO articles aimed at combating extremism is so incomplete as to differ from the real one by an order of magnitude. However, we believe that, to some extent, it still allows us to observe the general trends.
We know that 92 people faced responsibility inappropriately under Article 20.3 CAO for propaganda and display of prohibited symbols. In 36 cases, the courts imposed administrative arrest, in 39 cases – a fine, in eight cases the sanctions were lifted, in two cases we don’t know the outcome, and in the remaining cases we do not know what punishment was imposed. We view sanctions for the display of symbols as inappropriate unless the display had the purpose of advocating extremist ideology. Activists were the group most affected by the unjustified sanctions. The prosecutions against 46 of them took place in Moscow before the municipal elections: the defendants were either acting deputies or people who intended or could intend to run for office. Almost all the cases were based on the Smart Voting logo found in their social network posts of previous years. It is regarded as a symbol of the banned structures of Alexei Navalny. Posts with the symbols of other Navalny organizations, such as the FBK were also used as the reason to bring charges against the activists. A relatively small number of cases pertained to public display of Nazi symbols in the absence of Nazi propaganda; some of these cases addressed the distribution of images, which compared the symbols of the special operation to the swastika. In several cases, people were sanctioned for the slogan “Glory to Ukraine,” which law enforcement authorities interpreted as an attribute of banned Ukrainian nationalist organizations, despite the fact that it is used universally in Ukraine.
A new CAO article, Article 13.48 Part 1 (equating the actions of the USSR and Nazi Germany during World War II or denying the decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany), was applied in Moscow: In late August, politician Leonid Gozman was placed under administrative arrest for his Facebook post, in which he drew a parallel between the activities of the NKVD and the SS, and activist Kirill Suvorov – for publishing a photograph with the “Down with the CPSU" (KPSS) banner, on which the last two letters were replaced with symbols of the Nazi SS units, and a propaganda leaflet by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (recognized in Russia as an extremist organization). Both arrestees did not justify the crimes of Nazism and did not call for violence, hatred or discrimination; therefore we consider sanctions against them inappropriate.
We know about 50 cases filed under Article 20.29 CAO in January–August for mass distribution of extremist materials that, from our point of view, were banned without proper reason or for their possession with intent to distribute. Fines were imposed in 46 cases, three cases were dismissed, and the outcome of one case is unknown. It should be noted that 39 of these 50 cases of inappropriate sanctions 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. The remaining six cases dealt with inappropriately banned moderate Islamic materials – the Fortress of a Muslim (a collection of daily prayers), the Miracles of the Quran video, and The Future Belongs to Islam by Sayyid Qutb.
We know of only one case filed under Article 20.3.2 CAO for calls for violating the territorial integrity of Russia – a resident of Kemerovo was fined 75 thousand rubles for his comments on VKontakte. Reportedly, he wrote: “I suggest that Moscow should separate from Russia; let it only develop itself, so that the poor thing doesn’t have to spend anything on serfs.” This statement obviously cannot be taken seriously and does not merit sanctions.
In January–August 2022, we recorded 31 cases arbitrarily filed under Article 20.3.1 CAO for incitement to hatred. A fine was imposed in 16 cases, administrative arrest in nine cases, community service in two cases, one case was dismissed and the outcome of two more is unknown. Almost all of these cases were based on harsh statements against law enforcement officers (16), officials, the United Russia party and the military. All these categories of citizens, in our opinion, are sufficiently protected by law and do not need protection from manifestations of hatred unless direct calls for violence are involved.
One legal entity (mass media resource) and three individuals were fined under the new Article 20.3.4 CAO that punishes calls for sanctions against Russia, its citizens and organizations.
In addition, similarly to the preceding year, we recorded approximately 15 cases filed under Article 20.1 CAO (petty hooliganism) against social network users for disseminating information expressing disrespect for the authorities or society in an indecent form. We believe that Parts 3–5 of Article 20.1 CAO are aimed at suppressing criticism of the authorities.
The growth rate of the Federal List of Extremist Materials continues to decline. While the List added 88 entries in January–August of 2020 and 65 entries in January–September 2021, we see only 51 new entries (Nos. 5254–5304) added in January–August 2022 Moreover, while 11 entries added to the List in January–August 2021 included the inappropriately banned materials, we only recorded six such entries in 2021 –Islamic materials, a computer app with Jehovah's Witnesses materials, an appeal by a member of the Citizens of the USSR movement, and a satirical atheistic video.
Bans against Organizations
In June, the Supreme Court of Tatarstan ruled to liquidate the All-Tatar Public Center (Vsetatarsky Obschestvennyi Tsentr, VTOTs) as an extremist organization. The Tatarstan Prosecutor's Office filed a claim for the Center's liquidation in January 2021. The Ministry of Justice suspended VTOTs' activities in October after the prosecutor's office opened an administrative case under Article 20.3.1 CAO. The claim was based on the address to the State Council of Tatarstan delivered by activist Abdullazyan Zalyalov at the traditional VTOTs rally. Experts concluded that Zalyalov’s address contained a “possible presence of a hostile context” regarding the Russians and contrasted the Russians and the Tatars as “the state-forming people” and “the colonized people.” We believe that the statement should not have been interpreted as incitement to ethnic hatred. However, the Vakhitovsky Court of Kazan fined the Center 250 thousand rubles in December upholding the prosecutorial claims. It should be noted that VTOTs activists were repeatedly charged in administrative and criminal cases – mostly inappropriately, in our opinion. All of the above allowed the Prosecutor's Office to assert that the VTOTs continued to violate the law despite the warning about the inadmissibility of extremist activities received back in 2017. In our opinion, the VTOTs was banned without due justification.
Also in June, the Samara Regional Court recognized the community of the “Citizens of the USSR” as extremist. This group of “citizens of the USSR” is known by many names, including the “Council of Soviet Socialist Districts” and the “Union of Soviet Radiant Clans,” and was previously known as the “Novokuybyshevsk All-Soviet Central Electoral Commission.” We are unable to definitely state whether the ban is legitimate or not. On the one hand, some of the organization’s activities can be characterized as illegal and extremist, specifically, distributing anti-Semitic materials. On the other hand, once its leaders had received the corresponding prosecutorial warnings, the overwhelming majority of court cases against its members related to disseminating the appeal issued by one particular member, “Soviet deputy” Yuri Slepnyov, in which he calls for non-interference with the “elections” held by the organization. The only law enforcement concern regarding this appeal was the threat contained therein to prosecute all those who dare to oppose the electoral process as traitors to the Motherland under Article 64 of the RSFSR Criminal Code (which provided for punishments up to the death penalty). In and of itself, this threat is hard to take seriously, especially since the “Novokuybyshevsk All-Soviet Central Electoral Commission” was never known to be involved in violent actions. The wide distribution of such threats can increase the extent of their public danger, but the question of whether this constitutes a sufficient reason to ban the organization remains open. Additional information about the “citizens of the USSR” in Novokuybyshevsk can be found here and in Mikhail Akhmetiev’s book Citizens without the USSR. Communities of “Soviet citizens” in modern Russia (Grazhdane bez SSSR. Soobshchestva "sovetskikh grazhdan" v sovremennoy Rossii).