“Antiterrorism” and “anti-extremism” as means of suppressing civil liberties

In recent years, under the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism in Russia a number of laws, including the infamous legislative package proposed by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya, were adopted in order to toughen punishment for “extremist” crimes.

Meanwhile, as the analysis of law enforcement practice on articles related to “extremism” shows, most cases of prosecution for these violations concerns acts committed by means of Internet and not in real life, according to the expert Alexander Verkhovsky, who estimated the share to be about 90%. In such cases, violations which are subject to prosecution, are expressed in the form of repost, for example, and they do not contain direct appeals to violence, although criminal intent on inciting hatred is difficult to prove, while also in many cases the prosecution doesn’t trouble itself with properly proving the criminal intent, as is required by law. As a result, the articles of the Criminal Code which were intended to counter extremist activities, for example by preventing actions aimed at excitation of discord and hatred, are now primarily used for punishment of abusive comments on social networks. This was also confirmed by the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, who noted the “marked increase in extremist crimes” and thought it was a very dangerous process, which required proper response. At the same time, the Procurator General noted the relationship between the growth of the number of such offences with the “purposeful work to identify banned publications… which is required from all the prosecutors”.

The Procurator General also explained why and in which cases these articles of the Criminal Code are most regularly applied. He stated that “during the election campaign incitement to hatred and protest actions turn to be especially aggravated. Such methods used by the extremists should be stopped immediately to prevent from giving them even the slightest chance to worsen the social and political situation”. Thus, the goals pursued by the state in applying the articles on extremism become clear, i.e. the suppression of all protests.

In the Russian legislation there is a number of articles which set punishment for extremist actions, however, the notions used in the laws are rather vague, so often the provisions of the laws are interpreted arbitrarily.

So, for example, Shamil Kazakov was condemned to house arrest for posting a video, which allegedly incited hatred against a social group “police”. At the same time, law enforcement officers themselves, which earlier had refused to hire Kazakov when he applied for a position in the police citing the covert requirement of not hiring “Caucasians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Tatars and Muslims”, had not been held responsible for this. The prosecution of Kazakov under Section 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code has been ruled by court despite the fact that experts had repeatedly pointed out that police officers were not members of a particular social group, let alone a vulnerable social group (on the contrary, their rights are protected by law and they have various benefits and preferences).

Similar conclusions have recently been made when the court considered the case of Elizaveta Tsvetkova, who on May 31, 2016 was sentenced to one year of public works. She was recognized as an extremist for distributing leaflets critical of the police. Tsvetkova insisted that she had been protesting against illegal actions of the security forces. But in accordance with the court ruling, Tsvetkova was found guilty under Section 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (for incitement of hatred or hostility toward a social group “police”) and as a result of that for a year she will be deprived of 15% of her salary, which will go to the state.

The judges often try to de facto shift responsibility for decisions in the cases on supposed “extremist activities”, which have a clearly political nature, onto the experts, who have to answer questions of a legal nature, which are not within their competence.

For example, in May 2016 Maxim Kormelitsky was sentenced by a court in the Novosibirsk region in accordance with the same Article 282 to 15 months of imprisonment in a penitentiary colony. The reason for such a severe court sentence was a repost in the social network “Vkontakte” of pictures of people bathing in the hole in ice during Christmas as well as Kormelitsky’s critical commentary on the irrationality of risking one’s health as a religious sacrifice. The comment under the photo was recognized by an expert to have expressed a negative assessment of a group of persons, belonging to Christian faith. Thus, according to investigators, Kormelitsky aimed to incite hatred based on religious persuasion. Shortly after the court ruling in the case of Kormelitsky, the same picture was reposted on social networks by S. Kaverzina, who later also reported on herself to the Investigative Committee. However, she was not prosecuted, which proved the absurdity and selective application of repressive practices in accordance with “anti-extremist” articles of the Criminal Code in Russia.

Linguistic examination of the case of Natalia Sharina, prosecuted director of Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow, recognized the presence of extremism in the printed materials seized by the authorities. Among them was a children’s magazine “Barvinok”, which featured the words “Moskal” and “flock” and which were considered to be degrading to Russian citizens by a linguistic expert. Another gem from the same linguistic expertise was a statement that the notion of empire used to describe the Soviet Union was a negative assessment of the actual Russian authorities.

“Anti-extremist” articles of the Criminal Code are being applied with ease in all situations where the state’s “general line” requires it. The activities of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar people have been recognized as “extremist” because they refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea. Later the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee also proposed to add a list of extremist actions denial of the country’s historical events, including the infamous referendum that had taken place in Crimea.

Punishment under Article 282 also affects those, who have perpetrated real actions. However, severe punishment (imprisonment of up to several years) is often disproportionate to the nature of the action. For example, graffiti in public places, which are judged to be inciting hatred, can lead to imprisonment of a person for up to 4 years.

In addition to the tightening of existing legal norms, which are often already unnecessarily harsh, following the adoption of the legal package proposed by deputy Irina Yarovaya, new articles will be added to the Criminal Code.

Thus the Russian Criminal Code will feature responsibility for “failing to report a crime” (Article 205 Section 6). Although the new regulation will punish failure to inform the authorities about only some particular crimes, which are being prepared, by imprisonment for up to one year, legitimization of denunciations is in itself very frightening. Furthermore, the article could be used against persons whose involvement in the crime could not be proven, and it clearly gives possibility for abuse of authority, torture and corruption by the investigators.

It is proposed that Article 212 of the Criminal Code, which deals with “mass riots”, be supplemented with Section 1.1, which provides for liability for “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving of a person” into organization and training, as well as participation in the riots. In case a person admits his or her guilt, imprisonment for 5 to 10 years is previewed. In this case, same as with Article 205.6, the question arises how often Section 1.1 will be used as a repressive norm. After all, it is very simple to find a “frontman”, who allegedly “incited” to participate in riots, but it is very difficult to advocate innocence of the prosecuted in such a case. This problem has already occurred even with the currently existing version of this article. Obviously, the proposed changes to the existing legal norm only lead to a deterioration of the situation of the accused.

With the implementation of the proposed amendments, telephone companies and Internet service providers will be required to keep records of all calls and messages, as well as users’ metadata. It is clear that it is technically impossible to meet these requirements, at least from the very beginning, but this only means that the law will be applied purposefully, in particular cases with the aim of political repression.

Yarovaya’s legal package and misuse of anti-extremist legislation indicates that Russia continues to use the topic of extremism and terrorism as a pretext for the repression of civil society. This is likely to lead to the legitimization of violations of freedom of expression, free dissemination of information, peaceful protest and freedom of assembly.