6-11-2012By Innokenty Grekov
Following the December 2010 race riots in Moscow, Vladimir Putin boldly declared that “manifestations of extremism must be suppressed from whatever part they are coming from.” A year later, Mr. Putin reiterated the call after mass protests sparked by alleged election fraud in Russia’s parliamentary ballot. The police listened attentively, and the anti-extremism law became an important weapon in the growing arsenal of methods the government uses to clamp down on dissent in Russia.
Since 2005, Human Rights First has been criticizing Russia’s approach to addressing hate crimes through the prism of extremism—a tactic that, according to Russian groups like SOVA, has led to an array of misuses against nonviolent dissenting voices including journalists, activists, independent media and religious organizations. Yet these cases keep “coming from” all over Russia.
We told you about Maxim Efimov’s erroneous charges and looming hospitalization for his comments critical of the Russian Orthodox Church. And the beating of Philip Kostenko, an antiracism campaigner in Saint Petersburg who spent 30 days in jail for his political activism. Art Group Voina and other artists are also fighting legal battles for extremist offenses, and there’s the ongoing religious persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or followers of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi, whose books feature on the purposeless and ineffectual list of 1,200 extremist materials—leaflets, publications, and media sources banned by courts throughout Russia. And as the protest movement grew, key political activists like Alexei Navalny were warned or summoned for questioning in extremism probes. (During a recent search raid on Navalny’s apartment, the police confiscated a t-shirt with a slogan that no doubt will be checked for extremism.)
Though Russia’s pursuit of extremism remains a failure overall, it’s time to bring attention to several positive examples amidst the sea of abuse, persecution, and surrealism that is colloquially known as “combating extremism” in Russia. Lo and behold, here are six things that went right on the anti-extremism front in Russia:
1) The Supreme Court’s Ruling. In June 2011, the Supreme Court produced an official clarification stating that criticism of politicians and officials may not be equal to extremism and that it’s okay to criticize religions and social groups in political debates or scientific discussions. Applied in practice (easier said than done in Russia), the clarification could considerably limit the misuse of antiextremism in courts, as many such cases revolve around criticizing political or religious authorities. In order to achieve this, the Supreme Court must continue to educate Russia’s prosecutors and judges about its position.
2) Apology to a Blogger. Sergei Lezhnikov is a prosecutor from the South Urals city of Chelyabinsk. In May 2012, he did the right thing by issuing an official apology to a local blogger who stood accused of extremism. Case closed, and the blogger can now sue for moral damages. The unlawful criminal prosecution was typical of other anti-extremism cases against bloggers in Russia, and prosecutor Lezhnikov’s actions in this case should be replicated throughout the country.
3) The Bhagavad Gita Trial. Since June 2011, the state prosecutor’s office in Tomsk, Siberia, initiated an epic legal battle to ban a translation of the “Bhagavad Gita As It Is” as extremist material. The judge dismissed the case and then denied the appeal in March 2012, demonstrating to the wider world that the legal system is capable of preventing egregious misuse of anti-extremism.
4) Prosecutor General’s Office Defends Protestants. In October 2011, Artur Surin, the Deputy Minister of Education of Bashkortostan, took initiative in “combating extremism” and warned local educational institutions about the dangers of foreign religious organizations of “destructive persuasion,” listing one hundred such extremist groups, including Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists. Human rights groups, the Advisory Council of Protestant Leaders of Russia, and the Federal Ombudsman’s Office quickly flagged the case to the government, and the Prosecutor General’s Office issued an official condemnation, noting that Mr. Surin’s letter mentioned religious groups that are “officially registered and act according to the Russian law.” In order for Russia’s misuse of anti-extremism to decrease, all regional ministries must realize the simple truth reaffirmed by the Prosecutor General’s Office in this case.
5) Civil Society Response. The civil response to this problem has been very sharp. The SOVA Center’s daily summaries (& monthly in English) of alleged misuse of anti-extremism grew into an invaluable resource for journalists interested in the abusive practice. Top-notch lawyers from the Kazan-based regional human rights group AGORA work tirelessly representing bloggers, opposition leaders, and journalists charged with extremism. In April, the prominent human rights activist Yuri Dzhibladze raised the problem of anti-extremism directly with then-President Dmitry Medvedev (to no avail). Russia’s State Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin has also raised the issue in his work and reporting.
6) Substantial Decrease in Hate Crimes. Since 2008, the Russian government made significant advances in the criminal justice system response to racially motivated violence. Law enforcement authorities have improved their record in investigating, prosecuting, and sentencing perpetrators of violent hate crimes, many of whom formed neo-Nazi gangs that terrorized minorities across Russia. As a result, the annual hate crime murder count decreased from 116 in 2008 to 20 in 2011 (and to “only” five murders through May 2012), according to SOVA.
So there you have it, the recipe for limiting the misuse of anti-extremism in Russia: The government must focus on violent hate crime, seek to distinguish rhetoric from violent acts, listen to the Supreme Court, work with civil society activists, and uphold the Constitution by guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly to all Russians.
If you know more examples of Russia’s not misusing its laws for combating anti-extremism, send them to us and we promise to retweet your message: @0discrimination.