New Russian Supreme Court Directive Amid Massive Increase in Prosecutions for Extremism
Russia’s Supreme Court has issued important amendments regarding prosecution for social network activities which in Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea can be deemed ‘crimes of a terrorist or extremist nature’. The new explanation, passed on Nov 3, states that a single ‘like’ or reposting of material on a social network page is not in itself a ‘crime’, and that the context and all circumstances must be taken into consideration before deciding if a person should be convicted, even jailed.
This may sound bizarre, but it is anything but a joke, as Yekaterina Vologzheninova from Yekaterinburg discovered to her cost in February this year. She was convicted of ‘inciting enmity’ for merely reposting or ‘liking’ material critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas.
Now the Supreme Court instruction reads that in deciding whether material posted or ‘liked’ on the Internet is aimed at inciting enmity, denigrating a person or group, etc., the context, form and content of the information posted should be studied, as well as whether there are comments or means of expressing an attitude to it. The Supreme Court noted that the number of people prosecuted for so-called ‘extremist’ offences had doubled last year, and that since the beginning of 2016 398 people had faced charges. Many had been convicted specifically for reposting material, with it in doubt whether the law enforcement officers had looked into the person’s likely motives.
Prominent lawyer Henry Reznik has welcomed this clarification. He told the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta that reposting or clicking ‘like’ may mean only as much as that the person thinks others may want to view something and does not necessarily express his or her opinion.
The move is important as a message to first-instance courts that convictions for no more than a ‘like’ will probably be rejected in a higher court.
It remains to be seen how much of an achievement for common sense this is. While it may prevent some of the most idiotic prosecutions by over-zealous prosecutors, it seems unlikely to prevent the trials of Russians prosecuted for reposting material critical of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Vologzheninova is not the only Russian to have been convicted of reposting or liking material protest
The judge in Vologzheninova’s case imposed a sentence that was harsher than that demanded by the prosecutor: 320 hours of mandatory labour and destruction of her computer. She had been charged under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code - inciting ethnically motivated enmity (against Russians). The judge decided that there had indeed been something termed ‘propaganda of inferiority’ in relation to a specific national group – Russians and residents of eastern Ukraine who did not support Kyiv’s political course. The only sanity was the removal of the charge pertaining to a caricature looking like Russian President Vladimir Putin. This showed the Putin-look-alike with a knife in his hand which was raised over the map of Donbas. The judge – Yelena Ivanova – came up with a law-based reason for rejecting that charge, but it seems more likely that Putin was removed because the case had by that stage gained a lot of publicity.
Vologzheninova had simply reposted material on the Internet without making any changes to them.
She was at least not imprisoned, unlike Andrei Bubeev, a father of two who was sentenced on May 5, 2016 to two years and three months in a minimum security prison colony for reposting an article entitled “Crimea is Ukraine” and a cartoon toothpaste tube with the caption “Squeeze Russia out of yourself” on a social network page. The appeal has been rejected, and so the sentence has now come into force.
Both Vologzheninova and Bubeev had been placed on Russia’s ‘List of Extremists and Terrorists’ long before any sentence was passed.
In a particularly insane case, Perm blogger Vladimir Luzgin was prosecuted and fined for reposting a text which stated – correctly – that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939.
On that occasion, the Supreme Court effectively overruled historical fact by upholding the original ruling that convicted Vladimir Luzgin under Article 354.1 of Russia’s criminal code (‘rehabilitation of Nazism’).
The Supreme Court’s ruling was on September 1, 2016 – the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and a mere 17 days before the Soviet invasion from the East.
While all of the above and many others have faced prosecution, even imprisonment, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov; Russian fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin, as well as Russian former leaders of the Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas like Igor Girkin regularly post texts of openly inflammatory content. Dugin’s call for the death of all Ukrainians, for example, is clearly not regarded as ‘extremist’ in Putin’s Russia.