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

Free Edem Bekirov!

15447318032279451Edem Bekirov.  Photo courtesy of Vector News

Ayder Muzhdabaev
Facebook
December 28, 2018

Watch the footage we shot of Edem Bekirov. Then read what the well-known Kyiv musician Mitya Gerasimov has written.

“I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen in Kazan. In its news bulletin, Echo of Moscow, a supposedly liberal radio station, reports that a terrorist has been detained on the Crimean border, the member of an armed band. He has been accused of storing and transporting weapons and explosives. His name is not mentioned, but it is clear they are talking about our friend Edem Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar from Novooleksiivka in Kherson Region.

“Edem is an ill, elderly man who has had heart bypass operations and a leg amputated due to diabetes. Before the latest operation, he went to Kyiv to see his mom. On the border, he was abducted by men in masks. For a time, nothing was known about his whereabouts. Then they let him call home from the FSB’s Simferopol office. He had not been given anything to eat or drink for two days or been taken to the bathroom. He was not permitted to take bandages to dress the unhealed wound on his stump or the medicines that keep him alive. He needs to take sixteen pills a day.

“The Russian authorities have been slowly killing Edem in a remand prison for over two weeks. The day before yesterday, the so-called court dismissed the appeal in his case. The radio reports the detained man associated with the terrorist group led by Lenur Islamov. They apparently meant the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, where Edem’s daughter works.

“Everyone knows Crimean Tatars do not kill anyone or carry out terrorist attacks. They have a principled stance of nonviolent resistance to the occupiers. The cartridges and twelve kilos of explosives that Edem, one-legged and ill, was supposedly taking somewhere is the same nonsense they made up about the so-called terrorist militant Oleg Sentsov. I remember watching Russian television in early 2014, before the annexation. It was footage of Grushevsky Street in Kyiv: Molotov cocktails, burning tires, snowdrifts. The announcer explained to viewers they were seeing Crimean Tatars rioting in Simferopol.

“There is the pre-New Year’s hustle and bustle on the streets of our cities: lanterns, New Year’s trees, shopping, traffic jams. Like many other Crimean political prisoners, Edem Bekirov will ring in his new year behind bars. We must do everything we can to publicize his plight. We have to shout about it on every street corner. We have to get him out of jail before it’s too late.”

That is the Happy New Year we are having.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Books Are Not Bombs

Sergey Golubok’s letter to the customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg, dated 14 November 2018. Courtesy of his Facebook page

If you order a Masha Gessen book and have it sent to Russia via DHL, you might be asked to write the letter civil rights lawyer Sergey Golubok was asked to write today, confirming that the Masha Gessen book in question contained no calls for “extremist” and “terrorist” actions, did not vindicate terrorism, and would cause no damage to the economic and political interests of the Eurasian Economic Union’s member states and their national security, or the health and morals of its citizens.

The letter was addressed to the Russian customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg.

I hope the book Mr. Golubok ordered was the one about Ms. Gessen’s remarkable grandmothers, my personal favorite. {TRR}

This Is Mikhail Gerasimov from Nizhny Novgorod

gerasimovMikhail Gerasimov. Photo courtesy of his personal page on VK and OVD Info

This is Mikhail Gerasimov from Nizhny Novgorod. He is eighteen. Yesterday, FSB officers came to the young man’s house, took him in for questioning, and arrested him.

Mikhail photographed two pages from the investigator’s warrant and sent them to a friend. Mikhail also managed to call the Political Red Cross and tell them the FSB wants to level criminal charges against him for ten posts on social networks, all of them published prior to [sic] December 2016. It was then, according to Mikhail, that he learned about [Alexei] Navalny and changed his views.

One of the two pages of the warrant refers to a forensic examination of an entry from Mikhal’s personal social media page.

The entry opens with the phrase, “Are you tried of this Moskaland?” It ends with the phrase, “There those Rus[expletive deleted] got what was coming.”

The forensic examination concluded the phrase contained an incitement to physically destroy the legal authorities and justified destructive actions that the author [sic] attributed to ISIS: the crash of a Tupolev Tu-154 [Russian Defense Ministry] jetliner [in 2016] and the murder of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey.

A criminal investigation has been opened into whether Gerasimov made public calls for terrorist attacks or justified terrorism on the internet [punishable by up to seven years in prison under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code].

Today at 2:00 p.m., the Moscow District Court in Nizhny Novgorod will decide whether to remand Gerasimov in custody.

Source: OVD Info’s Facebook page. Read their full story here. Translated by the Russian Reader

Leonid Volkov: The List

list-2.jpegA screenshot of Rosfinmonitoring’s list of “extremists” (5 August 2018)

Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 3, 2018

I hadn’t come across this subject before, but it’s completely hellish. It has to do with the conveyor belt of arrests in Barnaul of people who posted memes on social networks. By the by, you read that each of these people, who has been charged with “extremism” for posting funny pictures on VK, is placed on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of people who are, allegedly, accomplices to terrorists.

The list is no joke at all. All your bank accounts and bank cards are blocked, and you cannot open new accounts and get new bank cards. No one can transfer money to you. You cannot be employed anywhere. You cannot take out more than 10,000 rubles [approx. 136 euros] in cash per month from own bank account, so go ahead and live high on the hog.

The kicker is that people are placed on the list without a court order. So, you are charged with a crime and you wind up on the list.

I took a glance at the list: there are 8,507 people on it. Eight thousand five hundred and seven people.* The list really does include “5203. Motuznaya, Maria Sergeyevna, born 26.8.1994, Barnaul, Altai Territory.” Maria Motuznaya is the young woman who broke the story about the Center “E” officers and their informers in Altai Territory.

Of course, Rosfinmonitoring could definitely not care less about the laws on personal information. While you are tortured and fined, they quietly hang you out to dry on their list.

By the way, the list is called the “List of Persons about Whom There is Information of Their Involvement in Extremism or Terrorism,” and its URL is even more telling: http://www.fedsfm.ru/documents/terrorists-catalog-portal-act. So, a state agency, Rosfinmonitoring, labels 8,507 people “terrorists” just like that. It is obvious the majority of them have been placed on the list in the absence of a court ruling, because even when you take into account all the “terrorists” the FSB has dreamt up, actual terrorist cases have probably not amounted to a tenth of this number.

If you’ve been added to the list, there’s no going back. The web page containing the list also features a list of people who have been removed from the list: there are fourten such people.  I don’t know whether this is the number of people who have been removed from the list since it was established or over the last year. In any case, it is less than 0.2% of 8,507.

It’s probably no coincidence the number of acquittals in Russian courts is roughly the same percentage.

Anyone can end up on the list merely for posting a meme. There is no investigation, no trial, no explanations. Wham! Just like that you’re a “terrorist,” a lowlife excluded from modern society.

It’s a horrible thing.

* Since Mr. Volkov wrote this post, two days ago, Rosfinmonitoring seems to have added another nine people to the list.

Leonid Volkov is project manager at Navalny’s Team. Thanks to Yevegnia Litvinova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Two More Suspects Detained in Network Case

krestovsky stadiumThe members of the wholly mythical terrorist organization the Network have been accused by the FSB of planning to disrupt the March presidential elections and this summer’s World Cup in order to foment rebellion among the hoi polloi. These accusations would be hilarious if they were not served up with heavy helpings of torture, intimidation, and incarceration. Photo of Krestovsky Stadium in Petersburg, a World Cup venue, by the Russian Reader

Two Suspects Detained in Network Case
OVD Info
July 5, 2018

Mikhail Kulkov and Maxim Ivankin, two suspects in the so-called Network Case, have been detained and placed in police custody, OVD Info has learned from Yelena Bogatova, the mother of Ilya Shakursky, another suspect in the case.

The Lenin District Court in Penza has remanded Kulkov and Ivankin in custody until September.

Bogatova had been waiting for a lawyer outside the Penza Remand Prison when Ivankin and Kulkov were brought there. According to her, their parents learned of their arrests on July 4. Their custody hearings took place at 2 p.m. on July 5.

Alexei Kulkov, Mikhail Kulkov’s father, told OVD Info the young men had been detained in Moscow without IDs. Penza’s Lenin District Court has remanded them in custody until September 18. Mr. Kulkov reported that his son and Maxim Kulkin have been charged with organizing a “terrorist community.”  He said he saw the two young men for several minutes in the courthouse as they were escorted down the hallway. He noticed they had black eyes and bruises on their bodies.

Previously, Ivankin and Kulkov were detained in Penza in March 2017 along with antifascist Alexei Poltavets. They were initially charged with drugs possession. According to Poltavets, after they were detained, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers tortured and beat them, demanding they testify against their friends in the antifascist scene. Poltavets later left Russia and had not seen Ivankin and Kulkov since then.

In June 2018, it transpired that Ivankin and Kulkov’s case had been combined with the investigation of the so-called Network, an organization that FSB investigators claim is a terrorist group. Ivankin and Kulkov have been charged with planning to produce or sell drugs in large quantities (Russian Criminal Code Article 228.1 Part 4 Paragraph G and Article 30 Part 3).

In the criminal case files, Ivankin, Kulkov, and Poltavets are identified both by their real names and the pseudonyms Redhead, Ilya, and Boris.

It transpired on July 4 that another suspect in the Network Case, Dmitry Pchelintsev, had been transferred from Penza Remand Prison No. 1, most likely to St. Petersburg.

On May 23, a friend of the accused, Victoria Frolova, was detained at the Russian-Ukrainian border. She was forced to testify against her Penza friends, including Ivankin and Kulkov. In her signed statement, Ivankin and Kulkov are identified as members of the 5.11 (“November Fifth”) cell of the Network. According to FSB investigators, all members of the Network trained with sticks in the woods, practice orienteering and first aid, and learned to set traps.

In the autumn of 2017, five young men were arrested in Penza: Yegor Zorin, Ilya Shakursky, Dmitry Pchelintsev, Vasily Kuksov, and Andrei Chernov. Arman Sagynbayev was detained in St. Petersburg and extradited to Penza. All of them were charged with involvement in a “terrorist” community. The FSB claimed the young young were involved in a terrorist organization known as the Network, whose cells, allegedly, existed in Moscow, Petersburg, Penza, and Belarus. The accused men gave accounts of mental coercion, electrical shock torture, and being hung upside down by FSB officers, as well as their planting weapons in the men’s cars and flats.

Later, several of the suspects renounced their confessions, saying they had been given under torture.

Besides the six suspects jailed in Penza, there are three more young men who have been charged with involvedment in the Network who have been remanded in custody in Petersburg. They are Viktor Filinkov and Igor Shishkin, on whose bodies human rights activists found physical traces of their having been tortured, and Yuli Boyarshinov, originally accused of illegal possession of explosive substances. Later, investigators tried to force him to testifying against the men accused in the Network Case and charged him with the same offenses.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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What can you do to support the Penza and Petersburg antifascists and anarchists tortured and imprisoned by the FSB?

  • Donate money to the Anarchist Black Cross via PayPal (abc-msk@riseup.net). Make sure to specify your donation is earmarked for “Rupression.”
  • Spread the word about the Network Case aka the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case. You can find more information about the case and in-depth articles translated into English on this website (see below), rupression.com, and openDemocracyRussia.
  • Organize solidarity events where you live to raise money and publicize the plight of the tortured Penza and Petersburg antifascists. Go to the website It’s Going Down to find printable posters and flyers you can download. You can also read more about the case there.
  • If you have the time and means to design, produce, and sell solidarity merchandise, please write to rupression@protonmail.com.
  • Write letters and postcards to the prisoners. Letters and postcards must be written in Russian or translated into Russian. You can find the addresses of the prisoners here.
  • Design a solidarity postcard that can be printed and used by others to send messages of support to the prisoners. Send your ideas to rupression@protonmail.com.
  • Write letters of support to the prisoners’ loved ones via rupression@protonmail.com.
  • Translate the articles and information at rupression.com and this website into languages other than Russian and English, and publish your translations on social media and your own websites and blogs.
  • If you know someone famous, ask them to record a solidarity video, write an op-ed piece for a mainstream newspaper or write letters to the prisoners.
  • If you know someone who is a print, internet, TV or radio journalist, encourage them to write an article or broadcast a report about the case. Write to rupression@protonmail.com or the email listed on this website, and we will be happy to arrange interviews and provide additional information.
  • It is extremely important this case break into the mainstream media both in Russia and abroad. Despite their apparent brashness, the FSB and their ilk do not like publicity. The more publicity the case receives, the safer our comrades will be in remand prison from violence at the hands of prison stooges and torture at the hands of the FSB, and the more likely the Russian authorities will be to drop the case altogether or release the defendants for time served if the case ever does go to trial.
  • Why? Because the case is a complete frame-up, based on testimony obtained under torture and mental duress. When the complaints filed by the accused reach the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and are examined by actual judges, the Russian government will again be forced to pay heavy fines for its cruel mockery of justice.

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If you have not been following the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case and other recent cases involving frame-ups, torture, and violent intimidation by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and other arms of the Russian police state, read and republish the recent articles the Russian Reader has posted on these subjects.

Valery Rashkin: The Return of the Oprichniki

1024px-0NevrevNV_Oprichniki_BISHNikolai Nevrev, Oprichniki, 1870s. Oil on canvas, 102 cm x 152 cm. Courtesy of the Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pillaging the Opposition
Valery Rashkin
Echo of Moscow
June 21, 2018

The Russian Supreme Court has ruled law enforcement and secret service officers can confiscate without a court order personal property used in the commission of terrorist and “extremist” crimes. The items that can be confiscated include computers, cell phones, and office equipment. This means personal property can be seized without payment of compensation and made the property of the state.

Can you believe it? The times of Ivan the Terrible have resurfaced. Courtesy of the state, Russia’s siloviki have been transformed into oprichniki and robbers. The ruling is completely unlawful, considering what passes for “extremist” crimes. Such criminal cases are usually frame-ups. They are so absurd they make you laugh and shudder at the same time.

The state has mandated law enforcers to hark back to the old system of remuneration (kormlenie, literally, “feeding”): the more “extremism” charges you file, the more iPhones and computers you can get your hands on. It is tantamount to legalized enrichment at the opposition’s expense. Moreover, even if the person who was criminally prosecuted is pardoned, their property will not be returned.

Don’t write nasty things about the regime on the VK social network, my dears, or the regime will fleece the living daylights out of you. Given the importance and high cost of electronic communications devices in our day and age, that is what it amounts to. The top brass, apparently, has decided that if people aren’t afraid of going to jail, they will intimidate them with the threat of robbery. I wonder who hatched this humiliating plan.

The rationale of hitting people in their wallets, enacted several years ago when fines for involvement in “unauthorized” demonstrations were increased precipitously, has gone beyond legal boundaries. Nothing of the sort exists in European countries: after a criminal investigation is wrapped, the accused has their property restored to them, nor are people are tried as felons for writing posts on social networks.

Naturally, the new dispensation is useless when it comes to deterring terrorists. The risks undertaken by an individual who rigs an explosive device and plots a terrorist attack are completely incommensurable with the risks taken by someone who posts a link to a book banned by the Prosecutor General or a satirical picture. In the first case, the criminals knowingly risk their lives and could not care less what happens to their property, while in the second case people do not even realize they are breaking the law.

Considering the vagueness of the anti-“extremist” laws and the way they are liberally interpreted and employed by law enforcement, the confiscation of property belonging to so-called extremists will only exacerbate the confrontation between the security services and ordinary Russians.

The advantages of the new measure are questionable, while the harm it will cause is obvious.

Valery Rashkin is a Communist MP in the Russian State Duma. Thanks to Elena Zaharova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader