Behind Russian law used to silence Navalny
Four years ago, a court in the Far Eastern Russian city of Blagoveshchensk watched Kill The Cosmonauts – a satirical clip that proposed killing space adventurers to “ascend to heaven” – and was not amused.
The court ruled that the video, produced by a hardcore punk band called Ensemble Of Christ The Savior And Crude Mother Earth, constituted “extremist material”. He banned the video, based on a 2002 Russian law, and added it to a federal blacklist of banned content.
“It is difficult to imagine that the appeals … contained in the text can be taken seriously even by the most radical public,” he added. SOVA Center, a Russian research organization, said in a 2018 report that documented how the law was being misused.
As of April 29, this blacklist of materials considered extremist includes nearly 5,200 articles, including translations of the Bible, videos made by a dissident group of the Russian Orthodox Church and Mein Kampf of Adolf Hitler.
If the indications are correct, a Moscow court will in the coming days add another organization to the list of “extremist” groups under Russian law: the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny and the network of militant groups that have become a major challenge for the president. Vladimir Putin‘s government.
Such an order would effectively order the demise of the organization, said Navalny’s allies and outside experts.
No concise definition
The Russian authorities‘ turn to the “extremism” law in their long-standing struggle with Navalny has once again highlighted the measure, from advocacy groups to legal experts who say it is extremely ambiguous, may -to be on purpose: a net to be used against anyone considered a threat for any reason.
Moreover, the law itself, while stipulating what is termed extremism, does not concisely define what it is in the first place. Instead, it simply lists a series of offenses that would fall under the law – for example, the distribution of extremist material, the preparation of extremist acts and the incitement of hatred against religious or ethnic groups. . The list also includes criticisms of government officials and politicians and, more recently, public challenges to Russia‘s territorial integrity.
“Anti-extremism has two meanings in Russia: one legal, the other political,” said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, longtime director of the SOVA Center.
Since its passage 19 years ago, he told RFE / RL, “the law has changed, there have been a lot of amendments, and it has become much tougher.”
Over the years, Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have conducted a series of scathing – and mind-boggling – government corruption investigations, targeting some of Putin’s closest allies. His most popular video to date, documenting a lavish Black Sea mansion purportedly built for Putin, is among the most-viewed Russian-language videos on YouTube.
He has also organized nation-wide so-called smart voting campaigns, initiatives that aim to sway disgruntled voters and hijack votes from candidates of the ruling ruling party and deeply unpopular United Russia.
In the ongoing case against Navalny, which should lead to the closure of his organizations, prosecutors accused them of “having undertaken to create the conditions for the destabilization of the social and socio-political situation under the cover of their liberal slogans “.
If upheld, the ruling would ensure that anyone found to be a member of such an “extremist” organization faces up to 12 years in prison. Additionally, donating money to such an organization could also result in up to 10 years in prison, and anyone seeking to use the organization’s logos, banners or symbols could be banned from running for office.
For his part, Navalny, who returned to Russia in January after months of recovery after being exposed to a potent nerve agent, has his own legal problems: he was ordered to serve around 2.5 years in prison for allegedly having violated parole conditions. . He and his supporters say the case is made up from scratch, in an attempt to keep him behind bars.
The first law on Russian books concerning the matter was adopted in 2002, the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activities, which is the main basis for such cases. Other provisions providing for various penalties – misdemeanors or felonies – also exist in various other Russian laws.
The measure specifically targeted terrorism; it was adopted at a time when authorities were determined to end all separatist activity in the North Caucasus – and at a time when terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere were becoming more frequent.
Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda were the main targets of the legislation, as were fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Tabligh missionary organization.
After a series of anti-government protests in 2011-12, protests organized in part by Navalny, the government began to turn extremist legislation against other religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been labeled extremists in a 2017 Supreme Court judgment. More than 250 members of the group have been jailed on charges related to extremists.
“Russia’s anti-extremism legislation has remained vague and susceptible to arbitrarily militarized by local authorities,” US-based Jehovah’s Witness spokesperson Jarrod Lopes told RFE / RL. “The Russian authorities do not care about the rule of law – both international human rights law as well as Russia’s own constitution, which protects religious freedom.
But anti-extremism provisions have also been used against other secular targets. In 2006, a journalist was convicted for publishing statements by Chechen separatist leaders. More famously, the provision on incitement to religious hatred served as the basis for the criminal conviction of performance art group Pussy Riot after performing a song criticizing Russian clergy in 2012.
In 2019, a Moscow University student who posted a series of political monologues on YouTube was found guilty and given a suspended sentence for inciting extremism.
In 2020, the law was modified again to add another item to the list of “extremist activity” – this time to include anyone who questions the territorial integrity of Russia, or the rhetoric in favor of seceding a region. This provision appeared to be specifically linked to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Ukraine in 2014, a decision hugely popular among many Russians.
“Putin has constantly created laws to serve his purposes,” said Maksim Trudolyubov, a former columnist for a Moscow newspaper who now edits the Kennan Institute’s Russia dossier.
“This time it is about expanding an existing law – which is conveniently broad – into new territory. The tactic is not new. He has suspended his Ukrainian policy for the time being. So it seems reasonable to his counterparts. He is tackling national “threats” now, “he told RFE / RL. “Apparently, [Navalny] is a designated threat at this time. “
Verkhovsky, of the SOVA Center, argued that the law has been properly applied in many instances of overt extremist activity.
In 2002, when it was first written, “it is likely [lawmakers] did not foresee that it would be used against political groups, ”he said.
The problem now, he said, is not just the danger of the way the law is defined, but the authorities’ willingness to use it against a larger group of people, Navalny, or others. – especially when United Russia approval ratings are at record highs. before the legislative elections scheduled for the fall.
“It’s very difficult, and we have elections coming up, and the authorities are nervous, and when they are nervous they start to use more and more oppressive measures,” he told RFE / RL .