Response to the Writers' Open Letter in Defence of Three Nationalists
It is always good to see high-profile people publicly standing up for the rights of low-profile prisoners. It is even more encouraging to hear any public statement defending freedom of speech. But it has been far from encouraging to see some recent distortions of the facts.
Of the three people named in this letter, one of them, Aleksei Kutalo, has not yet been tried. It is possible that during the course of proceedings, the charges made against him under the Criminal Code could change. Hence, it is a little too early to say that he has been 'convicted for speaking out'.
It is also completely untrue to say that the three in question, or any others, have been locked up 'for their views'. This may sound like a very formal interpretation, but people are not convicted in our country for their views, no matter how cannibalistic, but for their public statements. We could even say that people are not convicted for their statements either. But, in that case, we should actually admit it, and then follow it through to its logical conclusion and say that we should have the same kind of legislation as they have in the USA and Europe, because in European countries certain types of public statements are considered offences (of course, the phrasing of the laws varies from country to country).
It is also wrong to give the impression that 320 people (where does this figure come from anyway?) are in prison for offences under Article 282 of the Criminal Code. In reality, there are currently ten times less people in prison for such offences than that (several months ago I even managed to put together an almost complete list of them; it has changed a little by now, of course). The truth is that in our country people normally only receive conditional sentences 'for speaking out', and end up with a fine or something similar.
Now, let's get to the heart of the matter. I personally believe that in Russia – a member of the Council of Europe – there should be some kind of legal consequence for certain types of public statements. I don't mean statements that are simply insulting to one person or another, but those that publicly call for violence or for gross and systematic forms of discrimination. Imprisonment for 'speaking out' should only be possible in the most extreme cases, where speaking out involves direct incitement to commit offences or for setting up such offences.
Unfortunately, I do not know what evidence there is against Aleksei Kutalo. And if I was called upon to do so, I would not base my position solely on the opinions and information provided by one side. At the very least, it is not right that high-profile people are giving the impression that they have never heard of the Russian All-National Union (RONS) or are attempting to give it the neutral label of 'a registered organisation'.
Konstantin Dushenov is a skilled and experienced propagandist for anti-semitism and other types of racism. He is even responsible (in the moral sense of the word) for inciting violent acts and is closely linked to those who committed these offences, even though, as far as I know, he has not himself taken part in violent crimes. We can also lay at his door – again in the sense of being morally responsible – attempts to pervert the investigation into the murder of Galina Starovoitova. And even for this, it is unlikely that he would receive a prison sentence, particularly since it would be his first conviction. Perhaps, he won't stop there and will eventually end up in prison. But this raises another question: whether our law enforcement agencies are capable of making a systematic, long-term effort and not just sporadic attempts to address this issue.
Finally, we turn to Aleksandr Dzikovitsky. He is not on the same level as Dushenov, but he has certainly produced a body of writing that is very strongly-worded and xenophobic in character. These writings clearly do not merit a prison sentence. In my view, it would be far better for a court to take up the procurator's suggestion and deny him the right to publish his material for a fixed period of time.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky lives in Moscow and is director of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, an NGO monitoring ultra-nationalism, hate crime, hate speech, the use and abuse of anti-extremism legislation and contemporary religion.