Russia (HRW) – Set Aside Unlawful Verdict on Extremism Charges
A Russian court on May 11, 2017, convicted a 22-year-old blogger on criminal charges of incitement of hatred and insult to the religious feelings of believers, Human Rights Watch said today. The court gave the blogger, Ruslan Sokolovsky, a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence.
Sokolovsky had posted to YouTube a prank video in which he plays Pokemon Go in a church. The authorities should take steps to have the conviction vacated or set aside, and stop prosecuting individuals for peaceful exercise of their right to free speech.
“It’s a relief that Sokolovsky is not behind bars, but the fact that he was prosecuted and convicted remains a prime example of the Russian authorities using vague and broad anti-extremist laws to stifle free speech and promote self-censorship,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sokolovsky’s actions may have offended some or indeed many, but they present no public danger and criminal sanctions against him are groundless incursions on the right to free expression.”
The charges against Sokolovsky stem from an August 11, 2016 prank video Sokolovsky uploaded to his YouTube channel. In the video, Sokolovsky is seen playing Pokemon Go, the popular location-based reality game, on his phone in the Russian Orthodox Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg. At the end of the video, Sokolovsky says: “I regret not catching the rarest of Pokemons: Jesus. They say he does not exist.”
The video was widely shared online and reported in the media, including by pro-Kremlin Russia 24, which reported that the video insulted the feelings of religious believers, and called Sokolovsky “mentally ill.”
Also in August, Sokolovsky posted another video mocking Russian Orthodox recommendations about marriage and family. Citing the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as his personal inspiration, Sokolovsky also wrote several other satirical or critical blog posts about the Orthodox Church.
In September, authorities searched Sokolovsky’s apartment and arrested him on charges of incitement to hatred and insult to the religious feelings of believers, criminal offenses under articles 282 and 148 of Russia’s criminal code. In January 2017, authorities initiated a new criminal investigation against Sokolovsky on charges of “trafficking in special technical devices [designed] for surreptitious obtainment of information” under article 138 of the criminal code, for having a pen with a video camera, which police officials seized from his apartment during the search. He was found guilty of all offenses at trial.
Following his arrest, a court ordered Sokolovsky held in pretrial custody, initially for two months. Although he was released to house arrest following an appeal, he was returned to custody on October 28, 2016, after the court found that he had violated his bail terms.
In January 2017, Sokolovsky’s pretrial custody was extended, and he was again released to house arrest pending the criminal trial.
On May 11, the court ordered him to remove nine videos from the YouTube channel, and banned him from attending mass gatherings for the three-and-a-half years of his suspended sentence. Sokolovsky was then released on his own recognizance. Sokolovsky’s lawyer, Alexey Bushmakov, speaking after the verdict, said that the case against Sokolovsky was meant to “frighten and intimidate” bloggers and other internet users in Russia and to prevent them from speaking freely online.
The offense of “insult,” one of the crimes of which Sokolovsky was convicted, was added to Russia’s criminal code in 2013, a year after several members of the feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot were convicted of criminal “hooliganism” in retaliation for their anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral. Parliament adopted a law amending article 148 of the criminal code to criminalize “a public action expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers.” The law provides no definition of “religious feelings” and sets no threshold for “offending” them, allowing prosecutors and courts tremendous discretion to target critical speech. Sanctions include fines and up to a one-year jail sentence.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Russian government gained tighter control over freedom of expression through a raft of disturbingly regressive laws, Human Rights Watch said. The laws provide the government with tools to restrict access to information, carry out unchecked surveillance, and censor information that the government deems “extremist,” “separatist,” or otherwise illegal and harmful to the public.
In recent years, those sentenced to or facing prison terms or hefty fines for “extremist activities” have increasingly included bloggers, journalists, political opposition activists, ethnic minority activists, and other critics of the government, as well as people who mock the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Criminal prosecution of bloggers and others for peacefully expressing their views shrinks the already limited space for public debate,” Gorbunova said. “Sokolovsky’s conviction once again shines a spotlight on the downward spiral of freedom of expression in Russia.”
This report prepared by Human Right Watch