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'Rights in Extremis': The extreme use of anti-extremism laws in Russia 

admin - December 6, 2019 - counter-terrorism


This post is part of the "Security and Human Rights" series, where we highlight violations of and threats to human rights and justice posed by counter-terrorism and anti-extremism measures. The series is implemented by the civil society Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, Anti-Extremism and Human Rights, part of the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), which brings together non-governmental organisations in Europe, Eurasia and the US.

This post is written by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis – a Moscow-based NGO focusing on racism and xenophobia, religious conflicts and relationship between the state and religious organizations, and misuse of anti-extremism legislation. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fair Trials.

In Russia, anti-extremism laws are being applied far beyond their legitimate purpose, making anti-extremism legislation an instrument of state control that is often used to quell legitimate dissent. In September, SOVA Center and ARTICLE 19 have released a joint report entitled “Rights In Extremis: Russia’s Anti-Extremism Practices in International Perspective.” The report concludes that many of the anti-extremist provisions fall short of international law and standards, because they are formulated in an overly broad way, because they provide for disproportionate sanctions, or because they criminalise statements that should be protected.

Extremism – an umbrella term 

‘Extremism’ is a very broad legal term – it comprises terrorism, coup attempts, hate crimes, incitement to hatred, attempts to disrupt elections and so on. The term therefore refers to several spheres that are usually addressed in Europe separately – particularly in legislation.

In Russia, in contrast to nearly all European countries, the term ‘extremism’ is not only used in policy and political rhetoric, but also in legislation. It is defined in a specific law which is related to many provisions, including those of the Criminal Code. This specific anti-extremism legislation has been in existence in Russia for more than 10 years. Concerningly, it has been borrowed by a number of other post-Soviet states, and this process is ongoing.

The broad definition of 'extremism' has been repeatedly criticized by the international community because of its vague wording.

There is a specific law enforcement system involving a network of police and security services departments in charge of countering extremism in Russia. Given the broad definition of extremism, they are responsible for fighting a wide range of acts, including drawing banned symbols on walls or sharing racist jokes on social media. Thus, officers are provided with a wide choice of possible operations. Their preferences are not always determined by the security of the state or society; they may also be guided by expediencies or personal prejudices.

One of the legislation’s quirks is the concept of ‘promoting superiority on the basis of religion’. As a rule, law enforcement does not interpret this concept as incitement to religion-based discrimination, but rather as promoting superiority of one’s religious beliefs. This has led to bans of certain religious groups as extremist and the prosecution of their followers. The largest of the banned groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the moment, more than a hundred of them face criminal prosecution, and even cases of torture have been reported. A number of completely peaceful Muslim movements have also been banned, among them followers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi. 

The concept of ‘extremism’ has continued to expand with further related provisions being introduced. In 2013, the offense of “insulting religious feelings of believers” was included in the Criminal Code in addition to incitement of religious hatred. In fact, the vast majority of the cases falling under this article concern allegations of blasphemy. Actually, the difference between the two offenses – insulting religious feelings and incitement to religious hatred – has been drawn at random.  

The human impact 

From the moment the anti-extremism legislation came into force, we have registered instances of its use against peaceful critics of the authorities –  obvious cases of political misuse of the law. 

One such case, that of Stanislav Dmitrievsky, became the first of several anti-extremism cases to be considered by the European Court of Human Rights. Dmitrievsky, a human rights journalist, was convicted in 2006 for publishing two statements made by leaders of Chechen separatists. Dmitrievsky was in no way affiliated to the separatists, but was punished for the publication of the statements. 

In fact, anti-extremism law enforcement is rarely determined by the alleged offense, but rather by the personality of the defendant. This approach has been applied to both peaceful and non-peaceful opponents of the authorities. We have seen this in the cases of Russian ultra-right activists, one of which was a notorious neo-Nazi who managed to avoid charges for serious crimes for years but was finally sent to prison for sharing two photos. 

Broad legal definitions result in equally broad reporting categories used by the police and security services as law enforcement agents seek to increase reporting rates with minimal effort. Similarly, over the last decade, instead of preventing hate crimes, the police clearly prefer to counter hate speech and other public statements which they could present as extremist or terrorist. As a result, hundreds of people have been convicted for statements they made online, including some who have been punished for clearly lawful speech. This being said, the majority of statements which resulted in prosecutions over the past few years were for intolerant expressions targeting certain ethnic or religious groups. However, those were mostly harsh words rather than actual incitement to hatred as laid out in international standards under the Rabat Plan of Action’s six-part test to assess severity of incitement. 

Last year, Russian authorities finally decided to change this policy. After six years of rapid increase, 2018 saw fewer criminal convictions for public statements than the previous year, and Article 282 on incitement to hatred was slightly improved. The Supreme Court issued recommendations incorporating the majority of the aforementioned six-part test provisions. In particular, the Supreme Court has finally admitted that the reach of the public statement matters for consideration of its alleged social danger. 

However, it should be borne in mind that the Supreme Court’s recommendations have not been followed consistently by the lower courts.  Still, we hope that the political leadership will realize the deficiencies of the established practice. We may hope that they will be even slightly more receptive to recommendations on the part of civil society as well as on the part of European Court of Human Rights, which issues more and more decisions in Russian “extremist” cases. 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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