How the Russian government is using anti-extremism laws to fight opponents
The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and other organizations created by opposition politician Alexei Navalny have recently come under attack from the Russian government and will no doubt be recognized as extremists. The Putin regime has for years used anti-extremism legislation against its opponents, ranging from religious organizations to journalists. The latest attack, however, could affect thousands of Navalny supporters.
асплывчатые формулировки антиэкстремитского законодательства елают его эффективным орудием асоти со. Author: WikiMedia Commons.
“Misuse of anti-extremism”
The way the current Russian regime understands extremism has been distorted, as recently illustrated by the fact that Hezbollah, whose official mission is to destroy the State of Israel, has not been recognized as an extremist organization in Russia, while Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been persecuted as extremists despite their practice of peaceful worship.
Unfortunately, hatred against groups of people because of their color, race, nationality or sexual orientation can be found all over the world, but different countries treat it in very different ways. Unlike Russia, the concept of “extremism” is absent from US laws, and actions that might be considered “extremist” fall under the definition of “hate crimes.” The differences go further, helping to avoid prosecution for their opinions: as long as a person expresses only one opinion, which does not present an imminent danger to the public, that person cannot be punished under the American law. In other words, to be charged with a hate crime, a person must first commit an actual crime.
Russia takes a different approach: its 2002 federal law “On Combating Extremist Activities” lists actions considered extremist by default, whether they are dangerous to public order or not. It should be emphasized that this includes both violent and non-violent actions. Some examples are: the forced change of the foundations of the constitutional system and the violation of the integrity of the Russian Federation; propaganda and public display of Nazi attributes or symbols; violation of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of an individual because of his social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic identity or his attitude towards religion; public justification of terrorism and other terrorist activities.
The law also includes other rather ambiguous definitions of extremism linked to incitement to social, racial, ethnic or religious discord. Even if the Russian judicial system was strong and independent, the vague wording of the law would cause significant difficulties in its implementation. But this is not the case: the courts are controlled by the executive branch, while the problem of vague definitions is exacerbated by selective application of the law, making the law a useful tool for the regime to ensure desirable outcome.
The SOVA Analysis and Information Center, which has been studying the fight against extremism in Russia for many years, coined the term “abuse of anti-extremism” to describe the situation. This concept describes the government’s practice of using anti-extremism measures as a decoy to cover up its violation of civil liberties and punish dissent or anyone who tries to escape official control.
Targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses
In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization and banned its activities in the country, affecting around 100,000 of its worshipers and violating their religious rights. The decision came as no surprise, as regional branches of this organization had been persecuted for suspected extremism for years.
In September 2009, in its decision regarding alleged extremism of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a regional court in Rostov repeatedly referred to “statements which undermine human dignity on the basis of attitude towards religion” and “Propaganda material on the exclusivity of one religion over another,” which, in the court’s opinion, “indicated the presence of signs of incitement to religious hatred”. This is just one example of how the vagueness of anti-extremism legislation is used to target an organization deemed undesirable by Russian authorities. According to human rights activists, the main reason for the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the siloviki can improve their crime resolution rates – an easy score at the expense of members of the religion.
But what is the reasoning behind these imprecise formulations? To say that, referring to the religious practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the court found extremism in their beliefs that true Christians do not worship icons and crosses and celebrate Christmas. But what is the extremist in this? A Muslim might say that Christianity is a false religion and that it is wrong to worship icons and crosses and celebrate Christmas. Does this mean that the practice of Islam must be recognized as extremist? To regard your faith as true and that of others as false is normal for believers, but it is ludicrous that the government recognizes differences in religious practices as extremists.
The court also pointed out that the religious scriptures of Jehovah’s Witnesses contained negative attitudes towards various elements of traditional Christianity. Again, a negative attitude towards other forms of Christianity does not in itself constitute extremism. Following this logic, any atheist or agnostic should also be recognized as an extremist. In addition, the Russian law on freedom of conscience and religious association establishes “a special role of the Orthodox Church in the history of Russia”, thus recognizing its supremacy over other religions. Is this not the demonstration of a negative attitude towards them?
Another example is the same misuse of anti-extremism by the Rostov region court in 2009 when it identified extremism and called for civil disobedience in the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that “Jesus did not allow the substitution of the law of God by human traditions ”. The court also accepted evidence of extremism as evidence of alleged victims claiming that the organization’s publications and how they were distributed offended the religious beliefs of Orthodox Christians. The court attributed the different faiths of the spouses involved in the case, and the resulting impact on their family relationships, to the extremism exposed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Complaints from the husband (the alleged victim), taken seriously by the court, included his wife spending time preaching the faith to neighbors instead of cooking, cleaning and ironing.
Based on this evidence, the court recognized the Taganrog branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 34 works of religious literature as extremists in 2009. In 2017, based on similar rulings in several regions of Russia, the Supreme Court declared the entire organization of extremist Jehovah’s Witnesses. and banned it.
How are Jehovah’s Witnesses doing now? Membership of an extremist organization is severely punished in Russia, punishable by two to six years in prison. The Russian Criminal Code considers the preaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is an integral part of their religious practice, to be “persuading, recruiting or involving a person in the activities of an extremist organization” (a separate crime) , which could result in four to eight years in prison. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the organization in 2017, around 500 of its members have been accused of extremist activity simply for their membership. More than 250 are currently in prison.
Target critics of the regime
Expressing an unfavorable opinion of the government is also increasingly seen as extremism. This approach is clearly visible in the 2020 case of the journalist from Pskov Svetlana Prokopyeva. Writing about a Russian teenager who blew himself up in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk, Prokopyeva blamed the tragedy on government policy. The court interpreted her criticism as an attempt to justify terrorism and found her guilty. Prokopyeva is on the official list of “terrorists and extremists” maintained by the Federal Financial Supervision Service (Rosfinmonitoring), which is responsible for combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
The fate of being recognized as an extremist awaits the imprisoned organizations of opposition leader Alexeï Navalny. The FBK increasingly threatened the regime by exposing corruption, while the network of regional offices in Navalny forged political cadres for the opposition. The Russian state has constantly targeted Navalny structures and their employees. But this year, after Navalny’s arrest, a clear high-level decision was made to extend the attack to his supporters.
In April, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked the Moscow City Court to recognize the FBK and Navalny campaign offices as extremists without fully identifying the grounds for the complaint – reference is made to classified documents which allegedly contain evidence. Prosecutors maintain that “under the guise of liberal slogans” the FBK attempted to “change the foundations of [Russia’s] constitutional order, including through a “color revolution” scenario. There is no doubt that the court will do whatever the prosecutor’s office asks.
The accusations may seem ironic: the FBK investigated corruption and thus threatened the foundations of the country’s constitutional order. But the irony is lost on all those who have supported Navalny’s organizations, whether through donations or volunteering. If these structures were declared extremists, their activities would be recognized as illegal and thousands of people could face criminal charges for financing extremism.
The regime did not stop there: a bill was recently introduced to retroactively ban employees, volunteers and donors of extremist organizations from running for office. The most disgusting part of the bill is that, even though Article 54 of the Russian Constitution prohibits the retroactive application of any law establishing liability, the bill will still be passed. And the Constitutional Court, hiding behind the proclaimed fight against extremism, will find a way to explain the legality of a new violation of citizens’ rights.
* Igor Slabykh is a lawyer and manager with eighteen years of experience in Russia and the United States; he holds a law degree from Moscow State Open University and an LLM from George Washington University Law School.