3-30-2012By Fighting Discrimination Program
This week the Moscow-based SOVA Center released its latest report on Russia’s misuse of antiextremism laws—a problem that affects government critics, religious groups, independent media, and artists. These laws were designed to impose heavy penalties on skinheads who commit violent crimes, but their ambiguity allows state prosecutors to use them to target the speech-related “offenses” of an ever-expanding list of dissenters.
As tens of thousands of Russians rally for greater democracy and freedom, the country’s policies for “combating extremism” have come under increased scrutiny from both ultranationalist supporters and human rights activists. The former are trying to hijack the concept by portraying neo-Nazis as prisoners of conscience, while the latter are concerned with the debilitating effects of antiextremism laws on freedom of speech, religion, assembly and association.
One way the government targets dissenters is by placing publications or media files on the federal list of banned extremist materials. The use or distribution of these texts, images, movies, or songs can lead to warnings, fines, and suspended sentences. Real prison terms seem like a not-too-distant possibility and have already been handed out for other nonviolent extremist activities.
Here are the principal groups affected by this problem:
- Political dissenters and human rights activists. Last year, a regional court in Krasnodar added Russian gays to the pool of extremists by stating that “propaganda” of homosexuality poses a “direct threat” to the society at large, and attempts to confront homophobia “incite social and religious hatred.” Russian courts are increasingly gaining international notoriety for similar decisions against political opponents of the ruling United Russia party and human rights activists. Additionally, in a worrying development of 2012, two activists were even allegedly targeted for violence by the anti-extremism police: Human Rights First recently reported such cases from Nizhny Novgorod and Saint Petersburg.
- Religious believers. The law is misused against religious groups to ban materials and go after individual believers and religious leaders. This particularly affects members of so-called “nontraditional” religious movements such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, or followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. These communities are fighting back by seeking justice at the European Court of Human Rights where they regularly win cases against the Russian Federation.
- The Media. Roskomnadzor is a special federal agency tasked with monitoring all media activities. The agency routinely issues “warnings” to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing extremist materials. Two warnings in one year are enough to file a closure lawsuit. The real impact of this practice is hidden because journalists and editors, although never prosecuted directly, tend to censor their own articles out of fear of future problems.
- Artists. The cases against the Art Group Voina and the punk collective Pussy Riot are all over the news these days, but lesser known “offenders” are also facing legal battles. On Valentine’s Day this year, an appellate court in Kaluga upheld a 2011 verdict proclaiming Alexander Savko’s painting “Sermon on the Mount” (1995) as extremist and religiously offensive—and to be banned from exhibitions, TV, and magazines. The controversial painting shows Mickey Mouse preaching as Jesus Christ. The work was included in the 2007 Forbidden Art show, for which two curators received hefty fines (about $10,000) and also faced prison terms for displaying extremist materials. In 2009, more than a thousand people joined Human Rights First in successfully urging Russia’s Attorney General to drop those extremism charges against Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev. The curators avoided jail time, but Savko’s Mickey is now out of business in Russia.
For half a decade Human Rights First has supported SOVA’s calls for better laws and policies to deal with racist and other bias-motivated violence. While Russian courts continue to apply enhanced penalty provisions to prosecute racist murders and attacks, the number of cases where antiextremism laws are misused is also growing. Human Rights First urges authorities in Russia to amend the country’s ambiguous antiextremism legislation to prioritize violent crime and to fulfill Russia’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression, religion, and assembly and association.