New ’anti-terrorist’ law to unleash terror on Russia and Occupied Crimea
Image: Mirko Sablichi
Two and a half years after Ukraine’s Maidan forced the withdrawal of a law introducing sweeping dictatorial powers, Russia has passed a draconian law seemingly aimed at terrorizing and silencing civil society with direct impact for Ukrainians in Crimea under Russian occupation.
The bill has been formally penned by Irina Yarovaya, head of the Duma’s committee on security and Victor Ozerov, who holds the same post in the Council of the Federation, Russia’s upper house of parliament. Yarovaya is notorious for previous legislative initiatives and after the first reading, veteran human rights defender Lev Ponomaryov said it left only two options: flight or prison.
The bills were adopted in their second and third readings on June 24, although there were some last-minute amendments to some especially unconstitutional norms.
According to TASS, the State Duma committee excluded the norms which envisaged stripping people of their Russian citizenship, as well as those on prohibiting a person from leaving the country if s/he had a conviction for terrorism or ‘extremism’.
Certainly any threat to strip people of their citizenship directly contradict Article 6 of Russia’s Constitution. The worst Soviet Newspeak could not have come up with the efforts used to get around the constitutional prohibition. The bill as posted earlier in the week claimed that a person would be understood as having ‘voluntarily renounced his Russian citizenship” by, for example, working in an international organization without having agreed this with the Russian authorities.
Human Rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov believes that this new initiative threatens to outdo all previous repressive laws passed in this parliamentary term and says that it is attacking the very foundations of Russia’s constitutional order. The punishment of being stripped of Russian citizenship was proposed for: crimes of a terrorist or extremist nature; for entering the civil service of another country, or for working in an international organization that Russia is not a member of. Pavlov was doubtless right in assuming that the list would be extended to meet political needs.
It was not clear before the vote what had in fact has been removed, since the threats to restrict movement abroad and to remove citizenship have been bandied about for months.
As reported, the original bill in its first reading was in one respect even more repressive. Bans on leaving the country would have been allowed merely on the grounds of having received an official warning about the inadmissibility of committing ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ actions, or actions endangering public safety. No court order, no conviction required for such bans which would be imposed for 5 years. This too was in direct breach of Russia’s Constitution (Article 27).
There was outcry, since it is not only in Russian-occupied Crimea, that such ‘warnings’ are a regular and unwarranted form of pressure on peaceful members of the opposition. A Crimean Tatar newspaper and its Chief Editor, for example, received such warnings for using words like ‘occupation’ and ‘annexation’.
The ‘anti-terrorist’ package of amendments is so dangerously repressive that its authors and / or the Kremlin presumably felt that they could afford to make a few concessions, especially when the violation of Russia’s own Constitution is so flagrant.
Three new articles of the Criminal Code are introduced. Article 361 brings in sentences up to life imprisonment for those accused of a terrorist act outside Russia in which Russian nationals were killed or injured and those who finance terrorist acts.
It all depends how ‘terrorism’ is defined and what evidence is required to prove such financing. Gross abuse has already been seen in the politically motivated sentences of Crimean opponents of annexation Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and others. The same applies to the effectively guaranteed long sentences for unproven involvement in the pan-Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is legal in Ukraine and most countries, and Russia has never provided any good reason for calling it ‘terrorist’, yet hundreds have been convicted and received long sentences in Russia. 14 Crimean Muslims, all Ukrainian citizens, are now in custody in occupied Crimea although there are no grounds for prosecution at all,
Vast scope for abuse has already been built into Russia’s ‘anti-extremism’ legislation and it is increasingly used to crush dissent, including in Russian-occupied Crimea. Since 2011 the number of people sentenced under so-called ‘extremism’ articles have tripled. There does not appear to have been one acquittal.
Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov is facing up to 5 years’ imprisonment on ‘extremism’ charges. He is accused of public calls to action violating Russia’s territorial integrity, otherwise known as having expressed the hope that Crimea would be returned to Ukraine. The same charges have resulted in prison sentences for Russian nationals Rafis Kashapov and Andrei Bubeyev. In both cases, the men were charged over material posted or re-posted on social networks with criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
There will now be a new article 282.4 under the ‘extremist’ norms. What “facilitating extremist activities” means will doubtless be up to the FSB and prosecutor, yet this could carry a 15-year sentence.
Most disturbingly the number of crimes for which young people from the age of 14 will bear full criminal liability has been significantly extended, with these including what the FSB chooses to call ‘mass disturbances’ and the norms on terrorism.
A new norm 205.6 makes failure to inform of a terrorist crime an offence punishable with up to a year’s imprisonment. Up till Thursday this also allowed for deprivation of citizenship. If the latter has now been removed, the sentence may be toughened. While the crimes mentioned do at least sound serious, there has been enough abuse of ‘terrorist trials’ to elicit serious concern over this also. The threat of such charges alone would make it easy to put pressure on people to provide the testimony the investigators wanted.
The bill provides much tougher penalties for posting material on the Internet (which allegedly ‘incites terrorist activities’ or ‘justifies terrorism’.
It imposes new demands on telecommunications providers who will have to store all records of communications for up to 6 months.
Without any consultation at all, the bill’s authors have introduced restrictions on who is allowed to teach their faith, and what ideas cannot be preached, by seriously restricting what is termed ‘missionary activities’. The Council of Protestant Churches has called on President Vladimir Putin to ensure that this norm is changed. It is yet another that gravely violates rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Only imprisonment will be envisaged for sentences under any articles of the Criminal Code linked with ‘extremism’ and terrorism’. This includes article 282.1 – taking part in what Russia calls an extremist society, or Article 282.3 – continuing activities of a banned organization. Russia has now banned the Mejlis, which is the representative body of the largest indigenous people of Crimea and claimed it to be ‘extremist’. A very large number of Crimeans are already today at risk of criminal proceedings over involvement in the Mejlis. They would all face imprisonment, as would Yekaterina Vologzheninova, the 46-year-old solo parent from Yekaterinburg convicted of inciting enmity for reposting or ‘liking’ material critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas and Russian poet Alexander Byvshev.
A particularly telling new element is the criminalization of what is termed “facilitating or drawing somebody into the organization of mass disturbances”. There would be a minimum sentence of 5 years for something that could be used to mean whatever the authorities wanted it to mean. The abuse of such legislation has already been noted by the European Court of Human Rights and ignored by Russia.
It is instead going for total war against civil society.