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3 June 2016

From social media to the slammer

Under threat of arrest and incarceration, the discussion of certain topics on the Internet is considered taboo by the Russian authorities.

Several armed officers of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in bulletproof vests burst into an apartment shouting, “On the floor! Don’t move! Arms behind your back!”. They handcuff ed 36-year-old Saint Petersburg resident, Artem Chebotarev, who was informed that a criminal case has been opened against him because of an extremist comment he posted on the online social network, VKontakte. This video, made public on the night of Friday, May 27th, received nearly 300,000 hits over the weekend. The FSB’s operational footage of the arrest was uploaded to the internet by the FSB as a warning to all civic activists and internet users in the country. The most popular of more than 1,500 comments reads: “Is this fake? Let’s say, five years ago, this video would have been considered a prank”. On the same evening, the media announced that the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media had prepared a bill on taking full control of Russia’s internet. 

It’s no coincidence that in March of this year, Sergey Zhukovsky, head of the department at the prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg for oversight of the legality of the state security apparatus’s activities, and enforcement of law on combating extremism, gave the following statement, which instantly became a catchphrase: “Every citizen must realize today that one careless post can ruin their entire life”.

According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, since the beginning of this year Andrei Bubeev (Tver), Hussein Makhauri (Sochi), Igor Stenin (Astrakhan) and Maxim Kormelitsky (Berdsk) have been sentenced. Twenty-three users were deprived of their liberty for sharing their opinions and for their internet activity in 2015. Twenty-one of them received real sentences, and two were given so-called involuntary commitment. In other words, they were sent to a mental hospital, which is de facto also a deprivation of liberty. All previous years of monitoring show that such cases are sporadic and do not reverberate with the public, perhaps because of the sort of people convicted. Thus, in 2014, neo-Nazi Maxim Martsinkevich, nicknamed ‘Hatchet’, previously convicted of extremism, was sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment for publishing three violent videos on the internet. Finally, his sentence was reduced on appeal to 2 years and 10 months in a penal colony.

The road from social media posts to a penal colony via compulsory de-virtualization – which seemed outrageous and impossible only a few years ago – is a well-trodden path now, having affected dozens of lives. And anyone who disagrees with the authorities, has their own opinions, and is ready to defend them on the internet, can end up following this path.

Let’s have a look at who is actually in the firing line.

Two years in the slammer for “Crimea is Ukraine”

On late evening of May 5, 2016, the Zavolzhsky district court in Tver announced the guilty verdict to mechanical engineer Andrei Bubeev for reposting the material of Russian columnist Boris Stomakhin “Crimea is Ukraine” and a picture of a toothpaste tube reading “Squeeze Russia out of yourself”. The public prosecutor, without batting an eyelid, demanded 3.5 years in a penal colony. Bubeev, who did not plead guilty, asserted that he was being persecuted for his beliefs, and insisted on the right to freedom of expression to the bitter end. Ultimately, the court sentenced him to 2 years and 3 months in a penal colony settlement for “public calls for extremist activity” and “public calls for actions aimed at violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”. In summer 2015, Andrei Bubeev was already serving 10 months in a penal colony settlement for reposts of similar materials and pictures in social media.

It seems that in today’s Russia, articles calling for extremism and separatism in the Penal Code are the most popular targets when it comes to the persecution of civic activists by the authorities. These were exactly the kinds of articles cited by the Oktyabrsky district court in Krasnodar when it convicted Daria Polyudova, the initiator of “The March for federalization of Kuban” on December 21, 2015. Despite the objections of the defense that pointed to numerous violations of the law, the verdict came into force with no changes on March 30, 2016. As in the case of Bubeev, the prosecutor demanded 3.5 years not of a standard-regime penal colony, but a penal colony settlement. The court took this to heart and handed down 2 years of time in such a settlement. Moreover, perhaps taking into account the immense public activity of the accused on the internet, the judge also restricted Polyudova’s rights, banning her from teaching or working in the media. 

Later, on May 17, 2016, the Soviet district court in Astrakhan sentenced the leader of the nationalist “The Russians of Astrakhan” movement, Igor Stenin, to 2 years in a penal colony settlement, also for public calls for extremism. His charges cited a re-posting of a text and comments in support of Ukraine on VKontakte. Stenin himself claimed that the entire position of the prosecution was based on the speculation of an FSB officer who acted as an expert in the case and prepared a relevant expert opinion.

On September 15, 2015, the city court of Naberezhnye Chelny (Tatarstan) found Rafis Kashapov, the head of the Tatar Public Center, guilty of calls for separatism and extremism. The public prosecutor demanded 3 years in a standard-regime penal colony, and the court fully agreed with the sentence. The criminal indictment of Kashapov was based on 6 pieces of material on Crimea and Ukraine, posted by him on his VKontakte page between July and December 2014. Similarly to Polyudova and Bubeev, Kashapov pleaded not guilty. Moreover, he stated that he had deliberately published all of the articles as he was personally deeply involved in the events in Ukraine.

On July 16, 2015, the Kalininsky district court in Saint Petersburg sentenced Maxim Kalinichenko to 2.5 years at a penal colony for calls for extremism published on the internet in February-March 2014. Maxim Kalinichenko is the organizer of “Russian travel runs” and creator of the “Russian Right Sector” online community (“Right Sector” is a Ukrainian nationalist political party which is banned in Russia).

On April 21, 2015, the Moscow district military court sentenced a Belarusian citizen, Kirill Silivonchik, to 2 years at a penal colony settlement for public calls for terrorism. A system administrator at a factory in Nizhny Novgorod, Silivonchik appealed “to give Crimea back to Ukraine”, posting texts and images on his VKontakte page.

On December 21, 2015, the Surgut city court found Oleg Novozhenin, a resident of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, guilty of inciting hatred and humiliation of human dignity, and sentenced him to one year of imprisonment for dissemination of extremist material. The investigation emphasized that Novozhenin supported “Right Sector” and “Azov” battalion, both of which are banned in Russia.

On December 30, 2015, the Kirov district court in Tomsk sentenced blogger Vadim Tyumentsev to 5 years at a standard-regime penal colony for publication of two video-messages, on VKontakte and YouTube, which in the opinion of the court incited hatred and enmity to the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The blogger received additional punishment in the form of a ban on using the internet for 3 years. On May 4, 2016, this harsh sentence came into force.

Meanwhile, taking into account his previous conviction for calls to terrorist activity, the columnist and editor of the online “Radical Politics” news site, Boris Stomakhin, was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment on April 20, 2015, by the Moscow district military court for an article on the site on Crimea, the re-posting of which resulted in Andrei Bubeev being sent to a penal colony settlement.

So, in Russia, within the last 1.5 years, out of 25 sentences for internet activity, 9 (36%) were for addressing the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in text, images, reposts and “likes” on social media. The overwhelming majority of those convicted were users of the VKontakte social networking service, which willingly works with law enforcement following the widely-reported forced emigration of its founder, Pavel Durov, from Russia. It can be argued that law enforcement strategy and judiciary practice have already been formed in such cases and that the notorious two years of penal colony settlement is already the golden and universal judiciary standard.

Besides, only a few days ago, on May 31, 2016, a new trend which has been gaining momentum in recent months could be observed. The Berdsk city court sentenced 21-year-old Maxim Kormelitsky to one year and three months of penal colony settlement for posting an image of Epiphany bathing, accompanied by a negative comment. The court found him guilty of inciting hatred on religious grounds. This happened against the backdrop of the landmark case of a resident of Stavropol, Viktor Krasnov, who was tried for offending the sentiments of believers after making statements on VKontakte that “there is no God”, and that “the Bible is a collection of Jewish fairy-tales”. Prior to sentencing Kormelitsky, the courts limited themselves to compulsory or corrective community service or fines for inaccurate statements made on social media about the Orthodox faith. Now, not only are civic and internet activists who criticize the Russian authorities under threat of being jailed, but so are internet users who allow themselves to attack the Russian Orthodox Church, or Orthodox faith.

As for the other 16 cases, when decisions about the deprivation of liberty were made, the charges were made for justification of terrorism, insulting public officials, libeling officials representing the Prosecutor’s office, making false denunciations and even developing software for banned online casinos. And, obviously, underlining all of this in the majority of cases is incitement of hatred and enmity as well as calls for extremist activity.

All in all, the number of sentences in the cases cited above that were based on so-called “extremist” articles grew significantly in 2015. According to the official statistics of the Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, 544 rulings were made based on these articles in 2015. 414 people had been sentenced on these grounds just a year earlier. In 2014, Agora’s analysts recorded 132 cases of criminal prosecution for internet activity, this number totaled 203 in 2015. The Russian authorities are sending a tangible message to society – there are topics which are best not touched on the internet. For in doing so, as the prosecutor put it, one can really ruin one’s life, moving from comfortable social media straight to the slammer.

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