Statement on closing the prosecution against activists of Voina

Joint statement of the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” and the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis 

Police is not a social group. A criminal case against the participants of the art-group “Voina” (War) has been dismissed. 

In October, the Investigating Committee in Saint Petersburg has closed the criminal case against Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev. After one year of investigation, no crime prescribed by article 213 part 1 b had been found in the activities of the people accused in turning over the police cars during the “Palace Overturn” action in September, 2010. 

The investigation decided that Vorotnikov and Nikolaev cannot be arraigned on a criminal charge in hooliganism on the basis of hate and enmity against a certain social group, as “at the moment there is no agreement of opinion whether the police officers represent a separate social group.” This decision, based on the opinions of independent experts and precedent decisions made by Russian courts, is very important for law enforcement practices and advocacy for the rights of public activists. Initially, the investigating authorities were inclined to understand article 213 (hooliganism) within the framework of anti-extremism legislation and accuse of enmity against a social group. However, some human rights activists and experts doubted if such approach was right. Public activists and experts from the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis have criticised the position of the prosecution in this case many times. The lack of clear definition of a “social group” in law, as well as in a scientific tradition, leads to violent interpretation of this notion.

 According to the equity of statute, it refers to only vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, the law is often used to protect those who already have additional protection, such as the workers of the law-enforcement agencies, who are protected by special laws. Only in very specific cases, anti-extremism legislation should be used in order to protect a certain social group: for instance, when homeless people are attacked. Most cases when this law is used are arguable. Too often this law protects representatives of power or particular officers, military personnel or workers of the law-enforcement agencies.

 The defence of Vorotnikov and Nikolaev criticised the criminalisation of “hate against a social group “police.” For several years, the human rights activists have been emphasising that the law is used in improper ways. Finally, their position was confirmed at the plenary meeting of the Supreme Court on June 28th, 2011 in a decree No.11 “On judicial practice in criminal cases involving crimes of an extremist nature.” The Supreme Court confirmed that the limits of possible criticism against officers should be wider than against average citizens.

 The workers of the Investigating Committee of Saint Petersburg asked the experts of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia to write down their opinions on the definition of a social group. The experts, Valery Zarubin and Natalia Nemirova, decided that in general, police is not a social group: “The police workers were not a small social group when the crime was committed.” The arguments were convincing enough and the much-talked-about criminal case against the group “Voina” was closed.

 Thus, the human rights activists’ idea, that an anti-extremism legislation should not be used to prosecute opponents of the power, has won. However, it is very important now to officially admit that the prosecution of people accused of hate crimes against a social group, that was understood to be a criticism of some authority figure, is illegal. But some people have already been found guilty of hate crimes against a social group. For example, blogger Savva Terentyev was convicted for a hate crime against the police and Irek Murtazin was imprisoned for a hate crime against the authorities in Tatarstan. The case against the people who put up a poster, criticising some politicians, at the medical institution in Barnaul and were later accused of hooliganism on a basis of hate against the representatives of power, is being examined now. All such cases should be closed or requalified. The experience gained from the case against the group “Voina” should be the last attempt to judge political dissatisfaction as extremism.

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