Alexander Verkhovsky: Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism”

yaltinskoe_delo_hizb_ut_tahrir_1.jpgRussia has used its official ban on the Muslim movement Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, such as these six men, charged in the so-called Yalta Case. The fact that the defendants are neither terrorists nor members of Hizb ut-Tahrir has not stopped Russian authorities from prosecuting them for these imaginary crimes. Courtesy of Crimean Tatar Resource Center

Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism” Has Been Expanding: It Should Be Reined In
Alexander Verkhovsky
Nezavisimaya Gazeta
March 5, 2019

The dramatic events of recent weeks surrounding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the harsh prison sentence handed down to Dennis Christensen, and the torture of detained believers in Surgut, make us wonder how unique what has been happening to them has been.

First, we should recall the bare facts. The Russian authorities have banned numerous texts published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including their translation of the Bible into Russian. All their local branches have been banned and their property confiscated. More than forty criminal cases are underway, cases in which 120 people, aged 23 to 84, have been charged. Twenty-five of those charged have been remanded in custody. All of them have been charged with going on with the work of a banned “extremist” organization (punishable under Article 282.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code), although this amounted only to holding prayer meetings and group discussions

The Russian Supreme Court decided to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses completely on April 20, 2017. Criminal cases based on the ban were launched a year later, that is, over a hundred suspects were charged in a matter of ten months, and yet not a single case has gone to court yet.

In fact, Christensen was convicted on the basis of an earlier ban of a local Jehovah’s Witness branch. There were eight such bans of local branches. Unlike his co-religionists, convicted earlier under the same ban, Christensen was sentenced to actual prison time. After the so-called Yarovaya package was adopted by the Russian parliament, he had to be sentenced to no less than six years in prison, and this was what happened. It should make us extremely concerned about what will happen to current and future suspects, especially the ones now jailed in remand prisons.

But what has happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is not unique. In exactly the same way, the peaceable followers of the fundamentalist movement Tablighi Jamaat and the peaceable followers of the quite moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi have been banned in Russia and persecuted under the same law in the Russian Criminal Code.

The pattern was the same. First, the texts published by the groups were banned because, allegedly, they claimed the superiority of their religious doctrines to others and contained hostile descriptions of non-believers. Then, the organizations themselves were banned for the same reasons, including using the banned texts in their worship services. Finally, the Russian authorities prosecuted believers for “going on with the work” of their now-banned organizations. Moreover, the courts usually gave defendants probation sentences at first. Subsequently, however, people convicted on the same charges were sent to prison and the sentences handed down were harsher.

The Muslim activists were also tortured by Russian law enforcement. The current shock over events in Surgut can be put down to the fact that Russian society is in some sense inured to the torture of Muslims suspected of “radicalism.”

The Russian Supreme Court banned all three groups: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the followers of Said Nusri, and Tablighi Jamaat. For some reason, it paid no mind to the fuzzy definition of “extremism” to which it resorted in all three rulings. It is true that all three religious doctrines claim only their way is the true way and that all other ways are false, and their texts occasionally contain rather harsh descriptions of non-believers. The current Russian legal definition of “extremism” is such that these things can be considered evidence of “extremism,” but you could find more or less the same things in nearly all religious doctrines. Such claims are typical of confessions of faith, and, as such, they are protected by the Russian Constitution.

With regard to criminal cases of incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of religious convictions, religious rituals, and religious groups is not a criminal offense. For some reason, however, this ruling has not been applied in civil cases banning religious literature and organizations, although the conflict between the procedure for banning religious “extremism” and Russia’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of conscience is striking. Perhaps unraveling this conflict is a job for the Russian Constitutional Court?

Returning to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we should again pay attention to the scale of their persecution. The number of accused Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of one calendar year has been much greater than the numbers of the two Muslim groups mentioned. It is more comparable to the persecution of the radical movement Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islaami.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in 2003 as a terrorist group, although it has not been implicated in terrorism. The Russian authorities were clearly in a hurry to ban it, so the actual danger it posed or did not pose to the constitution was not even at issue. Members of the movement have been charged under the anti-terrorist laws in the criminal code, and so their prison sentences have been even harsher. But there are similarities with the other religious groups we have been discussing: participating in group gatherings and reading the same texts were offered as evidence of their criminal deeds.

Another serious conflict emerges in this case between the Russian Constitution and the articles in the Russian Criminal Code dealing with “extremist” (Article 282.2) and “terrorist” (Article 205.5) groups. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that a group has been banned altogether legitimately. When this happens, the group’s formal and informal members are obliged to honor the court’s ban. But they have not changed their views, and they still associate with the same group of people. It is likely they would want to discuss what to do in the circumstances: perhaps, for example, establishing a new group based on slightly different principles. If we are dealing with a dangerous group that has been rightfully outlawed, such discussions and meetings could not help but interest the police and security services, but they are hardly criminal in their own right, for these people have not been deprived of their basic civic rights, including the right to assemble. Besides, not only active members could take part in these meetings but also outsiders, and yet law enforcement does not especially distinguish between the two groups of people in practice.

These problems are more apparent when we speak of religious communities. The Russian Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion both alone and in the company of others. The work of any religious organization mainly consists in praying together and other joint activities, such as confessing and preaching as part of religious services. If a religious association has been banned, its members are in effect barred from exercising their constitutional right. If Russia’s current anti-“extremist” laws are meant to enact such severe restrictions of a fundamental human right, this have never been explicitly stated. So, again, one would like the Russian Constitutional Court to issue a clarification. It is, after all, a matter of tens of thousands of Russian nationals potentially facing criminal charges.

Since there have not been any clarifications, and the current crackdown has only been picking up steam, many have wondered how it happened. There is hardly a single, simple answer to this question. We might say that in their campaign against potentially dangerous movements, the Russian authorities have gone much too far and made a considerable number of mistakes. One of the reasons is that they listened to politically and religiously biased “experts,” and they continue to heed their advice, judging by the way the anti-“extremist” campaign has progressed in the religious realm. Our many years of experience with these cases have shown that counterarguments by religious studies scholars and legal experts rarely reverse the current tendency. They prove useful only when the authorities are willing to listen to them for reasons of their own.

The growing campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been horrifying, but there is also the chance that this time someone in the elite will finally come to their senses and change their mind. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly pose no threat whatsoever to Russian national security. Moreover, it is clearly just as impossible to eradicate their religion in Russia, since it would be wrong to jail or force over 100,000 people to emigrate, especially since Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses did not give up their faith in the worst of times.

The problem, however, is whether the officials who make key decisions about large-scale crackdowns could find acceptable means for reconsidering their earlier decisions. If this does happen, it matters, given the constitutional conflicts described above, whether anti-“extremist” policies will be reconsidered, if only in the religious realm.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center. Thanks to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Case against Adygean Environmentalist Valery Brinikh Dropped

Defense lawyer Andrei Sabinin (left) and environmentalist Valery Brinikh. Photo courtesy of Agora

Adygean Court Drops “Extremism” Case against Environmentalist Valery Brinikh 
Agora
August 7, 2017

Maykop City Court today dropped the “extremism” criminal case against well-known local environmentalist Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. Brinikh was on trial for, allegedly, having insulted the dignity of the Adgyean people by writing and publishing an article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs.” The court dropped the case for want of criminal culpability.

He was explained his right to exoneration. This news from courtroom was reported by Alexander Popkov, an attorney with the Agora International Human Rights Group, who represented Brinikh along with attorney Andrei Sabinin.

“Today in court, the state prosecutor filed a motion to drop the charges of incitement of hatred against Brinikkh and drop the criminal case for want of criminal culpability in his actions,” said Popkov. “The judge retired to chambers before he announced the decision to terminate the criminal case. The ultimate argument in favor of this decision was a forensic examination carried out by the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which found no traces of “extremism” in the environmentalist’s article. A total of four expert opinions and three forensic examinations had been ordered in the case, and only one of them supported the charges. The case lasted almost three years.

According to police investigators, in the fall of 2014, Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research, and ex-director of the Caucasus Nature Reserve (1999-2001) и the Daur Nature Reserve (1993-1999), had produced “extremist” matter, an original article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs.” The article dealt with the environmental mental problems caused by one company’s hog-breeding facility in Adygea’s Teuchezhsk District. The company was founded by Vyacheslav Derev, representative of Karachay-Cherkessia in the Federation Council.

Vyacheslav Derev. Photo courtesy of the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly

The investigators claimed that Brinikh subsequently conveyed this matter to unidentified persons for dissemination on the internet. The environmentalist’s article was published on a local website. The defense did not agree with the prosecution’s argument, saying it was absurd, a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

On December 14, 2014, Maykop City Court ruled the article “The Silence of the Lambs” “extremist” matter. In March 2015, the Adygea Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

ADV-TV, published on YouTube on August 7, 2017. On August 7, 2017, Maykop City Court dropped the “extremism” criminal case against well-known local environmentalist Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. Brinikh was on trial for, allegedly, having insulted the dignity of the Adgyean people by writing and publishing an article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs. The court dropped the case for want of criminal culpability. Brinikh was defended in court by attorney Andrei Sabinin and attorney Alexander Popkov, with the Agora International Human Rights Group.

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Valery Brinikh poses for a photograph outside the Maykop City Court. Courtesy of Valery Brinikh

Court Refuses to Rule Biologist “Extremist”for Criticizing Hog Breeders
Although Article Containing the Criticisms Remains on List of “Extremist” Matter
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
August 8, 2017

On Monday, Maykop City Court terminated the “extremist” criminal case (Russian Criminal Code Article 282) against Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. He was on trial for the article “The Silence of the Lambs,” about the environmental damaged caused by the Kievo-Zhuraki Agro-Industrial Complex. The news was reported Alexander Popkov, an attorney with the Agora International Human Rights Group, one of Brinikh’s defense attorneys.

The charges had been filed in December 2014. According to police investigators, the article contained a negative assessment of ethnic Adyghes. Ultimately, however, the prosecutor’s officer dropped the charges. The decisive argument was a forensic examination, conducted by the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which found no evidence of “extremism.” The article contains criticism of the republic’s authorities, “but criticism of persons engaged in political activity is the norm in a civic, democratic society,” the report concludes.

Investigators cited the conclusions of Sergei Fedyayev, an analyst at the Interior Ministry’s Criminalistics Center for Krasnodar Territory. Fedyayev argued that the negative connotations of the word “sheep” extended to the word “lamb,” as used in the article. On the basis of the report written by this same analyst and at the request of the republic’s prosecutor’s office, in December 2014, the Maykop City Court ruled that Brinikh’s article was “extremist” matter. Thus, Brinikh has been cleared of “extremist” charges, but his articles is still listed in the database of extremist matter.

Popkov argues that the ruling is a precedent. He cannot remember similar cases. Theoretically, one of the parties could petition the court to exclude the article from the list of extremist matter, but his client has not yet decided whether he will pursue this. The Adygea Prosecutor’s Office did not respond promptly to our request for a reaction to the ruling.

From a legal point of view, the case is not absurd, argues a source in law enforcement. The author of a text considered “extremist” may not be an “extremist” himself. In this case, the decisive role is played by the intent in his actions to incite hatred. It might well transpire that the individual had no sinister intent whatsoever, but after the text he authored has been published, it lives its own life.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center, knows of cases when matter has been excluded from the official list of “extremist” matter, but not due to the acquittal of suspected “extremists.” That happens all to rarely. However, the case in Maykop is a good illustration of the poor quality of such judicial rulings, he notes. In approximately half of cases, matter is ruled extremist using a simplified procedure. Authors are usually not involved in the case, and so no dispute as such arises. Recently, the Prosecutor General’s Office tightened the procedure for applying to the courts with such requests. Now they can be made only by regional prosecutors and only after they have vetted the request with the Prosecutor General’s Office. Verkhovsky acknowledges that such measures have indeed worked, but they have not solved the problem of rubber-stamp court decisions on “extremist” matter, he argues.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK and Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. See all my previous postings on the Brinikh case.