Everyone Wants to Like and Be Liked

Mail.ru Group Speaks Out against Punishments for Likes and Reposts
Company Proposes Changing the Law and Law Enforcement Practice
Olga Churakova and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
August 6, 2018

Mail.ru Group не раз критиковала громкие законодательные инициативы, касающиеся интернетаMail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile law bills and laws affecting the internet. Photo by Yevgeny Yegorov. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Mail.ru Group, which owns the largest social networks in Russia, VK and Odnoklassniki [“Classmates”], has harshly condemned the practice of filing criminal charges against social media users for likes and reposts on social networks.

“Often the actions of law enforcement authorities have been clearly disproportionate to the potential danger, and their reaction to comments and memes in news feeds are inordinately severe,” reads a statement on the company’s website. “We are convinced laws and law enforcement practices must be changed. We believe it necessary to grant amnesty to people who have been wrongly convicted and decriminalize such cases in the future.”

Recently, the number of convictions for posts and reposts on social networks has reached a critical mass, explained a Mail.ru Group employee. Most of the convicitions are not only unjust but also absurd. He would not explain what specific corrections the company was going to propose.

“We believe current laws need to be adjusted, and we are going to make pertinent proposals,” VK’s press service told Vedomosti.

Mail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile laws and law bills affecting the internet. In 2013, for example, the company opposed an anti-piracy law. In 2015, it teamed up with Yandex to criticize the “right to be forgotten” law. In 2016, it opposed a law bill that proposed regulating messengers and search engines.  But punishing people for likes and reposts has become a political issue. Members of the opposition and social activists have often been the victims of Criminal Code Article 282, amended in 2014 to allow prosecution of people for incitment to hatred or enmity while using the internet.

Communist Party MP Sergei Shargunov addressed the problem during the President’s Direct Line in June of this year.

“If Article 282 were taken literally, certain zealots would have to convict Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Mayakovsky, and have their works removed,” he said.

Putin agreed it was wrong to reduce such cases to absurdity. Subsequently, he tasked the Russian People’s Front (ONF) and the Prosecutor General’s Office with analyzing how the notions of “extremist community” and “extremist crime” were employed practically in law enforcement.

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“Prosecutions for Incitement to Enmity (Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) in Russia. Numbers of People Convicted, 2009–2017. Source: Trials Department, Russian Supreme Court.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

An Agenda for the Autumn
On June 25, Shargunov and Alexei Zhuravlyov, leader of the Rodina [“Motherland”] party, tabled draft amendments in the Duma that would decriminalize “extremist” likes and reposts. The MPs proposed transferring the violation described in Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1 to the Administrative Offenses Code, where infractions would be punishable by a fine of up to 20,000 rubles or 15 days in jail, while leaving only Part 2 of Article 282 in the Criminal Code. Part 2 stipulates a punishment of up to six years in prison for the same actions when they are committed with violence, by a public official or by an organized group. The government, the Supreme Court, and the State Duma’s legal department gave the draft amendments negative reviews, pointing out that the grounds for adopting them were insufficient. A spokesman for Pavel Krasheninnikov, chair of the Duma’s Committee on Legislation, informed us the committee would start working on the amendments when MPs returned from summer recess.

The ONF, which held a meeting of experts in July, has begun drafting a report for the president. The legal community, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the Russian Supreme Court must send their proposals to the Kremlin’s control directorate before September 15.

Leonid Levin, chair of the State Duma’s Committee on Information Policy, agreed there was a problem.

“The law is repressive, and there is no misdemeanor offense, although the Supreme Court issued an opinion that different cases should not be treated identically,” he said.

While there has been no lack of proposals, no one is in a hurry to abolish the law completely. A source in the Kremlin said dissemination of prohibited information should be punished. But a way of relaxing the law must be devised and, most important, a means of avoiding random convictions, he added.

A Demand for Liberalization
Recently, VK had been under pressure from the public due to the huge number of criminal prosecutions for posting pictures and reposts, said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. He argued the statement issued by Mail.ru Group was an attempt to defend the company’s reputation. According to the so-called Yarovaya package of amendments and laws, since January 1, 2018, VK has been obliged to provide law enforcement agencies with information about its users upon request, but the question of the legality of providing information having to do with people’s private lives remains open, since under Russian law a court order is required for this, Chikov noted.

Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov argued political decentralization and moderate opposition were now fashionable.

“Even the most cautious players sense the dictates of the age and have been trying to expand the space of freedom. Mail.ru Group is trying to be trendy,” he said.

Gallyamov predicted that, as the regime’s popularity ratings decline, the screws would be loosened, and the number of people advocating liberalization would grow.

Part of the political elite realizes many things have gone askew, agreed political scientist Alexander Kynev. A number of people hoped the circumstances could be exploited to push the idea of moderate liberalization. This could be a way of showing the regime was ready to talk, he argued.

“A lot will depend on what the autumn brings, on the results of regional elections. Now it would appear to be a topic that is up for discussion, but there are no guarantees. There are people in the government interested in having the topic discussed, but this doesn’t mean a decision has been taken,” Kynev said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Search and Intimidate

“Court approval of search warrant requests, 2007–first quarter of 2017. Red=number of warrant requests; gray=warrants issues. || In the past 11 years, Russian courts have approved, on average, 96.3% of search warrant requests. 67% of the requests concerned searches of private premises as part of surveillance operations, while 33% of searches were part of specific criminal investigations. ||Numbers and kinds of intimidation during so-called political searches (based on an analysis of 600 searches conducted in the homes of grassroots activists and members of persecuted organizations): violence, threats – 97; breaking down doors, forced entry through windows – 70; search performed at early hour of the day – 63; search conducted at homes of relatives – 47. Sources: International Agora and Russian Supreme Court Judicial Department.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

How Police Searches Have Become Tools of Political Intimidation
Agora International Says Privacy in Russia Has Nearly Vanished
Anastasiya Kornya
Vedomosti
March 29, 2018

Over the past ten and a half years, Russia courts have issued law enforcement agencies 1,976,201 warrants to search or investigate private premises. This number constitutes 96.32% of all such requests, according to calculations made by analysts at the Agora International Human Rights Group, which on Thursday will release a report entitled “Politically Motivated Police Searches: The Specter of Inviolability.” Often police investigators manage to obtain search warrants after the fact. During the period, the number of requests for search warrants has increased by nearly fifty percent. With respect to Russia’s 54 million households, this means that, over the last ten years, every twenty-seventh home in Russia has been searched.

The report’s authors note this is only the tip of the iceberg. Searches and inspections of non-residential premises, such as offices, warehouses, etc., do not require court warrants, and data on the number of such incursions has not been published by anyone.

The exception to this rule are law offices. Since April 2017, they have enjoyed greater formal protection than the residences of ordinary citizens. Law offices cannot be searched without a court order, and a representative of the regional bar association must be present during the search. Andrei Suchkov, vice-president of the Federal Bar Association, says they have not specially kept track of the statistics, but his sense is the number of searches in law offices has decreased during this time. There have been cases when police investigators tried to carry out searches without permission, but the courts have nevertheless mainly sided with lawyers, he notes.

Agora’s report reminds its readers that, in the early 1990s, the term “mask show,” meaning a police search carried out with backup from masked and armed special forces soldiers, came into common usage. Such searches were an effective means of coercing business partners and business rivals alike. Subsequently, the tool came to be used against the regime’s political opponents.

Recently, the practice of “serial” searches has been widespread. Thus, according to Leonid Volkov, head of Alexei Navalny’s presidential election campaign, police have raided the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny’s regional campaign offices no less than 150 times. Police have raided the offices of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia around fifty times over three years. Agrora’s analysts note the most frequent targets of large-scale, systematic searches have been members of opposition organizations and Crimean Tatars.

Another goal of police searches is the confiscation of electronic devices and subsequent unauthorized access to personal data, correspondence, and social media accounts. For example, during a June 2012 search of Alexei Navalny’s home, police seized a laptop, tablet computers, and mobile phone. Two weeks later, Navalny’s email and Twitter account were hacked.

In recent years, as Agora’s report underscores, police searches have been a vital element of campaigns against not only political opponents but also government officials. State-controlled national TV channels extensively covered searches in the homes of ex-regional governors Alexander Khoroshavin and Vyacheslav Gayzer, Federal Customs Service chief Andrei Belyaninov, and members of the Dagestani government.

Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, says they took an interest in the numbers of police searches after analyzing the state of privacy of correspondence and telephone conversations. If we recall that, on average, the courts have approved 98.35% of wiretapping warrants, we must admit judicial oversight in this area is illusory, and there is no privacy in Russia, claims Chikov.

Expanding the remit of law enforcement agencies to ever broader areas of daily life has transformed searches from investigative tools to signals broadcast by the regime and received by everyone involved in politics, government, and business, concurs political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov.

“What matters nowadays is not the outcome, but the search per se. We have been seeing an increased number of searches whose point is just that,” says Vinogradov.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Getting (No) Satisfaction

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“How the European Court of Human Rights Did in 2017.” Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Poland were the the leaders in terms of numbers of complaints the ECHR agreed to consider further, while Russia was number one in terms of rulings made against it. Among the most complaints from Russia were cases involving the right to liberty and security, the right to be protected from inhumane, humiliating treatment, the right to effective medical treatment, to right to a fair trial, and property rights. Source: ECHR. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Russia Leads in the Number of Human Rights Violations Confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights 
This Is Due to the Ineffectiveness of Russia’s Courts, One Expert Argues 
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
January 26, 2018

Russia ranks second among Council of Europe member countries in numbers of complaints made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and ranks first in number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to a report on the court’s work in 2017, presented on Thursday by ECHR President Guido Raimondi. Last year, the ECHR rendered a total of 1,068 decisions: 305 of these decisions, or 29%, concerned complaints from Russia. In 293 of these cases, the court ruled that at least one article of the human rights convention had been violated. As of January 1, 2018, 7,747 cases from Russia were in proceedings at the ECHR. Only Romania has supplied the court with more cases: 9,920. In 2017, the 49% of complaints filed against Russia and deemed worthy of consideration amounted to nearly half of all cases accepted by the court for further review.

Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, draws attention to the nature of the cases Russia has lost. They account for 66% of all of the ECHR’s rulings on the right to life, half of its rulings on torture, inhumane treatment or ineffective investigation of complaints of torture and inhumane treatment, and half of all rulings on the lack of “effective legal recourse” and groundless arrests. Finally, Russian plaintiffs won 38% of all cases involving the right to property. Chikov notes that not only has the number of rulings against Russia increased (by a third: from 222 to 305), but the number of complaints filed in Strasbourg has also experienced a sharp upturn. Chikov explains this both in technical terms (the ECHR has taken care of its backlog of cases and accelerated its document review process) and as due to the worsening overall human rights situation in Russia. The ineffectiveness of the country’s own tools for defending people’s rights has led to Russia’s becoming the most problematic country in Europe in this sense.

Russia consistently fulfills its international obligations, including implementing ECHR rulings, although some of them are flagrantly politicized, objects Andrei Klishas chair of the Federation Council Committee on Nation Building. Lately, there has been a tendency to endow the ECHR with the powers of a supranational body, but Russia acknowledges its powers only as an optional mechanism for protecting rights [sic]. National bodies remain the main mechanisms, including the Russian Constitutional Court, Klishas underscores.

The overall circumstances surrounding Russian cases in the ECHR is workaday: nothing overly worrisome has happened, argues Yuri Berestnev, editor in chief of the Bulletin of the European Court of Human Rights (in Russian). According to Berestnev, the growth of rulings in cases against Russia was to be expected, and the cause is purely technical. For three years, the court was completely focused on weeding out flagrantly unacceptable complaints from Russia. The Russian Justice Ministry dispatched a group of twenty Russian attorneys to help the ECHR clear up the logjam by filtering out several tens of thousands of complaints. [Sic!] The remaining complaints have good prospects. In late 2017, the court had accepted 3,000 complaints from Russia for further review, so the number of rulings went up from last year, explains Berestnev. He likewise notes that, in the autumn, the ECHR closed proceedings in 12,000 complaints from Ukraine, pointing out that the systematic problem of the non-fulfillment of decisions by national courts, due to the lack of financial means on the part of member states, should be discussed further by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Russia has successfully managed to deal with the same problem, recalls Berestnev.

Translated by the Russian Reader

••••••••••

Opposition Leader Navalny Targets Kremlin in European Court
The Associated Press
January 24, 2018

STRASBOURG, France — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday appeared at a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights into whether Russian authorities violated his rights through numerous arrests.

The court ruled last year that seven of those arrests were unlawful and ordered Russia to pay 63,000 euros (about $67,000) in compensation, but the Russian government appealed.

Proving that Russian authorities had political motives in arresting him and not allowing his rallies to go ahead would set an important precedent for activists across Russia, Navalny told reporters outside the courtroom in the French city of Strasbourg Wednesday.

“This case is important not only for me but also for other people in Russia, especially in the regions because they are stripped of the freedom of assembly,” he said. “If the European Court for Human Rights sees political motives in those cases—and I think we have presented enough evidence for this today—it will make an important precedent in Russia.”

A final ruling is expected at a later date.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most serious political foe, Navalny wants to mount a boycott of the March presidential elections after he was barred from running.

Navalny has faced fraud charges viewed as political retribution for investigating corruption and leading protests. A Moscow court this week ordered the closure of a foundation that he used for his failed election campaign.

Navalny mounted a sprawling grassroots presidential campaign before he was officially barred from running in December. Navalny’s boycott campaign might cut the voter turnout, which would be an embarrassment for the Kremlin.

Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

Pavel Chikov: A Managed Thaw

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Is a new thaw on the way?

A Managed Thaw: What the Reversal of Verdicts in the Dadin and Chudnovets Cases Means
Pavel Chikov
RBC
March 6, 2017

The Kurgan Regional Court quashed the verdict against Yevgenia Chudnovets and released her from a penal colony, where she had served four months of a five-month sentence for, allegedly, disseminating child pornography on the web. The Russian Deputy Prosecutor General almost literally copied the arguments made in the appeal by Chudnovets’s attoreny. Previously, during its consideration of the appeal, the selfsame Kurgan Regional Court had refused to release Chudnovets at the request of both the prosecutor and defense attorneys. The same court then denied the appeal against the verdict. The verdict was reversed only after the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Supreme Court intervened. Now Chudnovets will have the right to compensation for the harm caused her by illegal criminal prosecution.

The Chudnovets story unfolded at the same time as the even more high-profile case of Ildar Dadin. Dadin’s case was the first criminal case filed under the newly minted law on violating the law on public rallies, the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law. Dadin was taken into custody in the courtroom. Then came the shocking sentence of three years in a medium-security penal colony for a first offense, a moderately severe offense whose underlying cause was purely political, in a case tried in Moscow under the glare of all the media. During the appeals phase, the verdict was altered slightly, and the sentence reduced a bit. But then there was the drama of Dadin’s transfer to the penal colony, his arrival in a Karelian prison camp infamous for its severe conditions, the immense scandal that erupted after he claimed he had been tortured, and the harsh reaction to these revelations by the Federal Penitentiary Service. Then Dadin was secretly transferred to a remote penal colony in Altai over a demonstratively long period, after which the Constitutional Court, in open session, ruled that the relevant article of the Criminal Code had been wrongly interpreted in Dadin’s case. After this, the Supreme Court jumped quickly into the fray, granting a writ of certiorari, aquitting Dadin, and freeing him from the penal colony.

Politically Motivated Releases
The judicial system acted with phenomenal alacrity in both the Chudnovets and Dadin cases. Chudnovets’s criminal case was literally flown round trip from Kurgan to Moscow and back. Given current realities, this could only have been possible under the so-called manual mode of governance and with authorization at the highest level.

It calls to mind the instantaneous release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the same Karelian prison colony in December 2013, and the same sudden early releases, under amnesty, of the Greenpeace activists, convicted in the Arctic Sunrise case, and Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two months before their sentences were up. Of course, the record holder in this sense is the Kirov Regional Court, which in the summer of 2013 quashed Alexei Navalny’s five-year sentence in the Kirovles case.

In all these previous cases, the causes of the system’s sudden softness were self-explanatory. The thaw of December 2013 was due to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Navalny’s pardon was clearly connected with his being able to run in the Moscow mayoral elections. It was hard not to doubt the narrowly political, tactical objectives of these targeted releases.

The latest indulgences—the sudden releases of Dadin and Chudnovets, the transfer of the last defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case, Dmitry Buchenkov, and the Yekaterinburg Pokémon catcher, Ruslan Sokolovsky, from custody in pretrial detention facilities to house arrest—have been greeted with a roar of approval from the progressive public. The liberal genie would have burst out of its bottle altogether were it not for the eleven-hour police search of the home of human rights activist Zoya Svetova in connection with the ancient Yukos case. The search was as sudden and hard to explain as the releases described above.

Federal officials have not tried to dampen the talk of a thaw. On the contrary, they have encouraged it. The president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, federal human right’s ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, and Justice Ministry spokespeople have publicly supported decriminalizing the Criminal Code article under which Dadin was convicted.

Putting the Brakes On
Even earlier we had noticed that the number of politically motivated criminal cases had stopped increasing. Twelve years of defending grassroots activists, human rights activists, journalists, and heads of local NGOs mean we are sensitive to changes in which way the wind blows. It would be wrong to speak of an improvement. Rather, the brakes have been put on the slide into deterioration. There are still dozens of political prisoners doing time in Russia’s prisons.

Political scientists have spoken of an unloosening of the screws; lawyers, of necessary legal reforms. One way or another, it is clear these events did not began in February, and the changes have been implemented from the top, quite deliberately, but without any explanation.

Given the tactial objectives pursued in previous reversals of high-profile cases, there are serious grounds for assuming recent events are due to next year’s main political event, the presidential election.

Preparations for the election began last spring with a shakeup of the law enforcement agencies. The superfluous Migration Service and Gosnarkokontrol (Federal Agency for Drug Trafficking Control) were eliminated. A new political special forces unit, the National Guard of Russia, was established. The influence of the Investigative Committee has been sharply reduced, although from 2012 to 2016 it had been the Investigative Committee that served as the main vehicle for domestic political crackdowns.

The old framework has gradually ceased functioning. The effectiveness of show trials has waned. Leading opposition figures have grown accustomed to working with the permanent risk of criminal prosecution hanging over them. Some have left the country and thus are beyond the reach of the security forces, but they have exited politics as well. Protest rallies have not attracted big numbers for a long time, and NGOs have been demoralized by the law on “foreign agents.” The stats for cases of “extremism” are mainly padded by the online statements of web users in the provinces and “non-traditional” Muslims.

In recent years, the state has delegated its function of intimidation and targeted crackdowns to pro-regime para-public organizations. Navalny is no longer pursued by Alexander Bastrykin, but by organizations like NOD (National Liberation Movement) and Anti-Maidan.

Under a Watchful Eye
The foreground is no longer occcupied by the need to intimidate and crack down on dissidents, but by information gathering and protest prevention, and that is the competence of different government bodies altogether. It is the FSB that has recently concentrated the main function of monitoring domestic politics in its hands. FSB officers have been arresting governors, generals, and heavyweight businesmen, destroying the reputations of companies and government agencies, and defending the internet from the west’s baleful influence.

Nothing adds to the work of the FSB’s units like a managed thaw. Bold public statements, new leaders and pressure groups, and planned and envisioned protest rallies immediately attract attention. The upcoming presidential election, the rollout of the campaign, and good news from the courts as spring arrives cannot help but awaken dormant civic protest. Its gradual rise will continue until its apogee in March of next year [when the presidential election is scheduled]. Information will be collected, analyzed, and sent to the relevant decision makers by the summer of 2018. And by the autumn of 2018 lawyers will again have more work than they can handle. This scenario needs to be taken into account.

There is, of course, another option: the Kremlin’s liberal signals may be addressed not to the domestic audience, but to a foreign one. Foreign policy, which has remained the president’s focus, is in a state of turbulence. Vladimir Putin is viewed by the western liberal public as a dark force threatening the world order. Sudden moves toward democratization can only add to the uncertainty and, consequently, the Kremlin can gain a tactical advantage in the game of diplomacy. Considering the fact there are lots of politicians in the world who are happy to be fooled, the ranks of the Russian president’s supporters will only swell.

Pavel Chikov is head of Agora, an international human rights group. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. Translation and photograph by the Russian Reader

Don’t Film That or You’ll Go to Jail (Russia’s Diggers’ Law)

A digger wandering in a passageway under Moscow in 2012
A digger wandering in a passageway under Moscow in 2012

Pavel Chikov
Don’t Film That! You’ll Go to Jail
Snob.ru
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.