Don’t Film That! You’ll Go to Jail
May 4, 2016
A new trend has emerged in Russia that is a logical sequel to the state’s policy of intimidation. Diggers, roofers, base jumpers, bloggers, and other curious folk who like going to places and, especially, filming places not everyone goes and films are under threat of investigation and prosecution. Law enforcement’s arsenal includes heavy fines, arrest, and criminal charges for disseminating state secrets, followed by up to eight years in prison.
In late April, activist Yan Katelevsky was jailed for twelve days after videotaping outside the Ramenskoye police station in Moscow. He wanted to broach the topic, on his YouTube channel, of how policemen illegally park their police vehicles and personal vehicles, but it transpired he had been filming a “sensitive facility” and had “resisted the lawful order of a police officer” when he refused to stop filming.
A few days earlier, Meshchansky District Court in Moscow sent digger Gennady Nefedov to a pre-trial detention facility for “contacts with the media” (!) and with other defendants in his criminal case. Nearly a year and a half ago, Nefedov and five other guys had wandered into an underground passage in the Moscow subway in downtown Moscow. They were initially fined for “trespassing on a secured, restricted site” (Article 20.17 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code). A year later, they were detained and charged with “illegally obtaining and disseminating information constituting a state secret” (Article 283.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code).
Article 20.17 of the Administrative Offenses Code demands special attention. As they say, keep your eyes on the ball. On the first working day of 2016, Russia’s official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta published a largely unnoticed article bearing the prophetic headline “Freeze! It’s 15 Days for You: If You Sneak into a High-Security Site, You’ll Go to Jail.” Its topic was something its author dubbed the “diggers’ law,” meaning a set of amendments to the Criminal Code and Administrative Offenses Code that have considerably stiffened the punishments for trespassing on restricted-access areas. The fine has been raised from 300 rubles to 200,000 rubles (i.e., 666 times), and punishment now includes confiscation of “the weapon [sic] used in the commission of the offense, including photo and video equipment.” In addition, fifteen days in jail has been stipulated as possible punishment “as long as the act does not contain evidence of a criminal offense.” In the worst case, diggers, roofers, base jumpers, and bloggers can face the above-mentioned Article 283.1 and eight years in prison.
It is noteworthy that one of the people who drafted the diggers’ law was Tatyana Moskalkova, who would become Russia’s human rights ombudsman a few months later. In the same article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the author complains that diggers and “just plain thugs” are not spooked by restrictions, but unnamed sources in law enforcement explain to him that fifteen days in jail is not a soft punishment “but, so to speak, a mere makeweight to a whole passel of other criminal charges [including] disseminating state secrets, resisting arrest, theft, and property damage.”
No sooner said than done. In 2016, a schoolgirl who took a stroll on the roof of the Mariinsky Place, home of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, roofers and just plain tipsy young people who climbed the TV towers in Tver and Arzamas, respectively, and schoolchildren in Astrakhan who decided to take a selfie at the airport next to a TU-134 passenger jet and jumped the fence to do it have all been written up for “trespassing on restricted-access sites.” And these are just the incidents that have been reported in the media.
Thus, the Russian Federal Interior Ministry’s Inter-Municipal Directorate for Closed Jurisdictions at Important and Sensitive Sites in the Moscow Region (the Vlasikha Inter-Municipal Directorate of the Russian Federal Interior Ministry) has reported that from April 12 to April 19 of this year, it had uncovered six incidents of “trespassing a secured, restricted-access site.” If such statistics are being recorded, it usually means there is an order from the higher-ups to push up the numbers.
For example, according to his attorney, Vitaly Cherkasov, Petersburg digger Andrei Pyzh has already been charged with six administrative violations, including two for trespassing on secured sites: Engineering Design Bureau Center JSC and the Naval Academy’s experimental model basin.
The climax so far has been the case of the Moscow diggers. The authorities have followed the classic pattern for implementing their plans. Laws are amended right before a big holiday. They are tested out at the local level, and then a landmark, high-profile criminal case is staged to teach everyone else a lesson. Because even if you have been fined for the administrative offense of trespassing on a restricted site, it is far from certain that FSB officers will not burst into your home a year later and charge you with criminal violations such as “Illegal Entry into a Secured Site” (Article 215.4, amended December 30, 2015; punishable by up to four years in a penal colony) or “Illegal Acquisition and Dissemination of Information Constituting a State Secret” (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 283.1). No one will pay any mind to the fact that “dissemination,” as in the case of the Moscow diggers, amounted to reposting a photograph of the Moscow underground on the VKontakte social network, and that the “state secret” was something the accused would have no way of knowing by definition, since they had no physical access to it and were not privy to it. Moreover, it will sound like a legal travesty in such cases when prosecutors argue there were no signs of high treason and espionage (Articles 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code, each punishable by twenty years in a penal colony) in the actions of the accused. Meaning the creative scope, range, and freedom that law enforcement can exercise in such cases will be complete and unconditional.
Lawyer Dmitry Dinze said that a colleague told him the story of his client while they were waiting in line at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention facility in Moscow. The client had been arrested for photographing clearings in the woods near Bryansk and charged with treason. It turned out the place was an abandoned military airfield.
Also, considering how investigators and prosecutors juggle articles of the Criminal Code, various forms of “daching” and investigations involving drones and video cameras will be at risk. It is safe to say that the case of the Moscow diggers is the first harbinger and, unfortunately, it clearly won’t be the last.
A new element in the establishment of a police state has thus been born. There is a clear understanding in law enforcement that orders have come down to suppress attempts at photographing and filming special facilities and sites, moreover, in the broadest sense of these words, and posting what you have shot on the web. This is probably due to the latest secret report on a study of the Internet and the popular video hosting websites and social networks where such matter is usually posted. Under the guise of prudent counter-terrorism and maintaining public safety, the authorities have apparently ratcheted up the requirements for guarding sensitive facilities. True, so far, it seems, they are more inclined to use the traditional methods of intimidation and arrest. What is sad is that they deem even a vacant parking lot outside a police station a “sensitive” facility.
Pavel Chikov is chair of Agora, an association of Russian human rights lawyers and activists that was ordered shut down by a court in Tatarstan in February 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Russian Beyond the Headlines, from a now-hilarious article entitled “Moscow diggers reveal secrets of the underground world.” Oh well, goodbye to all that.