Russian prosecutors struggle to protect bruised religious sentiments
On January 22, Russian comedian Alexander Dolgopolov received a disturbing letter. The HopHead Tap Room in St. Petersburg sent him an official request from the Russian Interior Ministry. He demanded “full information” about a show he gave on site in February 2019.
Although the letter from the ministry revealed little, Dolgopolov had no doubts as to its seriousness. Fearing the consequences of a routine in which he made fun of the Orthodox Church, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, he left Russia.
“I knew if they got a hold of me they would put me in jail,” he said. The independent at the time.
On the same day, the press service of the Ministry of the Interior confirmed his suspicions. An unidentified resident of Orekhovo-Zuyevo – a town 500 miles from the St. Petersburg site – had filed a complaint, after watching the year-old routine on YouTube. In response, the local police opened an investigation against Dolgopolov under article 148 of the Russian penal code, for “attacking the feelings of believers”.
According to his lawyer, Leonid Soloviev, Dolgopolov, who has since returned to Russia, will continue to live under threat of criminal prosecution for the time being.
“For some reason, the investigation has not yet resulted in formal charges,” Soloviev said, via Facebook Messenger.. “However, in theory, they could decide to sue at any time during the next 18 months, before the limitation period expires.”
Introduced in 2013, Section 148, the so-called “blasphemy law”, has since sparked controversy.
In the aftermath of the Pussy Riot affair, in which members of the Russian feminist punk collective have been arrested for an explicit performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the broad and vague law, which prohibits “offending the religious feelings of believers” has stirred up a wave of popular indignation. Although Pussy Riot was prosecuted under pre-existing anti-hooliganism laws, Section 148 was seen at the time as a way to ensure that such an incident did not happen again.
However, the Kremlin also had a clear political motive for banning blasphemy. Following the huge street protests against the rigged elections in 2011 and 2012, the Russian government began a rhetorical pivot towards traditional values, leveraging religious and patriotic sentiment to bolster its popularity.
“Article 148 has always been above all a political law,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center, a Moscow think tank focused on the relationship between the Church and secular society. “It was aimed at consolidating Conservative support for the government in times of crisis. “
Blasphemy legislation, as well as the ban on the adoption of Russian children by foreign citizens and “homosexual propaganda”, can be seen as part of this effort. These new laws have also helped strengthen Russia’s position within the international religious right. In June 2013, just days before Putin signed article 148, Larry jacobs, head of the World Congress of Families, a coalition of hardline anti-abortion and anti-gay supporters, said: “The Russians could be the Christian saviors of the world.
While the blasphemy law has rarely been used, activists like Verkhovsky say it remains a powerful symbol for Russian religious conservatives.
Rejection against article 148
In March 2019, it was announced that a bill on culture to be debated in the State Duma would exempt “works of culture.[…]articles of the penal code concerning the attack on the feelings of believers ”, a change which had long demanded by eminent personalities of the Russian art world.
In short, article 148 would only apply to public documents of individuals. Full freedom to criticize and even to ridicule religion would be restored to cinema, theater, literature and museums, effectively defeating the blasphemy law.
Although an outcry from the Orthodox hierarchy saw Presidential Cultural Adviser Vladimir Tolstoy quickly and publicly deny that any decision to change the law had been made, it was clear that Section 148 was still politically controversial. Shortly after, the bill was quietly dropped and section 148 was left in place.
“The law itself is just too vague,” says Konstantin Dobrynin, a former Russian senator and lawyer who now lives in London. “No one has any idea what ‘offensive feelings’ means in a legal sense. Theoretically, that could cover almost anything.
As a result, the state has largely refused to enforce the legislation.
Since its introduction in 2013, there have only been 19 prosecutions under the law, most of which have been triggered by social media comments, memes or videos posted online by individuals. Of these, only 12 resulted in a conviction, two of which were overturned. In the Russian legal system, where over 99% of cases end in successful prosecution, this is an exceptionally low conviction rate.
Law enforcement also appears to be on the decline, with 10 cases in 2017, eight in 2018 and just one in 2019.
“No one is really sure what kind of evidence you need to prove religious sentiments have been offended, so police and prosecutors tend to avoid opening cases. They don’t want to create problems for themselves, ”said Verkhovsky.
However, the state’s reluctance to prosecute individuals under section 148 has had its own effects. In the absence of a coordinated central policy, law enforcement has become increasingly unpredictable, with investigations largely dependent on complaints by individuals to the authorities.
The case of Ruslan SokolovskyAnother example is a YouTuber being investigated for uploading a video of himself playing Pokemon Go at a cathedral in the city of Yekaterinburg in 2016.
In the images, which contained strong language mocking Christianity, Sokolovsky compared Jesus Christ to a Pokemon character and said he decided to play the game inside the church after seeing an article by press saying those who do could be fined or jailed. The video has attracted over 1.9 million views.
The Sokolovsky case, which ended in 2017 with a suspended sentence of two years and three months, was precipitated by a criminal complaint filed by the local Ural region news wire Ура.ру, who previously questioned Sokolovsky about the video.
“There is no logic in the government’s approach to section 148. They lost interest in the law over time and prosecutions began to depend on individual citizens filing. their own complaints to local authorities, ”said Damir Gainutdinov, researcher at Agora. , a Russian human rights organization that has monitored the use of the blasphemy law.
“First and foremost, the people behind the Article 148 complaints are from the extreme right wing section of Orthodoxy,” Dobrynin said.
The increasingly dysfunctional and arbitrarily enforced blasphemy law has come under criticism from both sides of Russia’s political aisle.
Russia’s organized religious right, bolstered by the Kremlin’s conservative turn, demanded that the blasphemy law be more rigorously enforced and its focus shifted from social media transgressions to the nation’s broader culture.
One of the targets of the religious conservative ire was the 2019 version from a song called “i_ $ uss” (Jesus), by Leningrad, a popular ska-punk band. The video for the song, which depicted a Christian-themed trip to LSD, sparked a furious denunciation from religious figures such as the ultra-conservative Orthodox priest and political commentator Vsevolod Chaplin, who demanded that the group be prosecuted in under section 148.
Again, however, no case was opened.
Meanwhile, some prominent clerics have criticized the impact of the blasphemy law on society.
“It is quite obvious to me that this law does not act in the interest of the church, but in fact discredits it,” Father Alexey Uminskiy, a prominent Russian liberal Orthodox priest, told a TV interviewer. in 2018.
“In recent years, we have seen a number of cases brought under this law that have caused enormous damage to the reputation of the Church,” he added.
Despite criticism of the blasphemy law from all walks of life, the likelihood of a major change in any direction seems low. The latest culture bill, approved by the State Duma in December 2019, is expected to continue the government’s closing approach on the blasphemy issue.
“Even if it is hardly enforced, keeping the law on the books is useful to the government by giving the impression that it wants to protect believers,” Verkhovsky said. “They cannot suppress it, because it will make believers believe that they are not interested in them.”
Illustrations by Gogi Kamushadze
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