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The Real Russia. Today. Another Putin presser, Russia ‘decriminalizes’ online hate speech, and Internet privacy laws cut both ways

Meduza

Thursday, December 20, 2018

This day in history. On December 20, 1917, the Council of People's Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic formed the “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,” commonly known as the Cheka. This was the first of a succession of Soviet secret police organizations.
  • Russia has ‘decriminalized’ one of its most controversial anti-extremism charges. Here's what that means in practice.
  • What issues did Putin ignore in his annual end-of-the-year press conference?
  • Investigative journalist who helped unmask Russian spies is denied access to Putin's presser, despite being accredited
  • Putin says Russian private military companies have ‘the right’ to operate ‘anywhere the world’ (though they're technically unconstitutional in Russia)
  • Patricia Huon and Simon Ostrovsky report on Moscow’s ‘charm offensive’ in the Central African Republic
  • Russian law enforcement block an article on a news website for glamorizing heroin use
  • Russian officials blocked an opposition website that commits the same ‘privacy violations’ as the country's parliament, ruling political party, and state news media
  • Washington plans to lift sanctions against Oleg Deripaska's business empire, even as it sanctions a whole bunch more Russians (including a ‘Deripaska-related designation’)

How will the police fill out their days now? 👮

What happened? On December 19, the State Duma adopted a law that will partially decriminalize the controversial Criminal Code Article 282, which courts have increasingly used to prosecute Internet users for “reposts.” First-time offenders will now face only misdemeanor charges, risking a 20,000-ruble ($300) fine or a 15-day jail sentence, instead of felony charges and a prison sentence. Repeated violations within a 12-month period, however, can still lead to a felony charge.

Does this change anything important? Yes. Misdemeanor offenses aren’t as serious as felonies, and the punishments are lighter. Russia’s Administrative Code also gives law enforcement fewer powers than the Criminal Code. Here are the main differences:

  • The Administrative Code doesn’t permit searches. Police officers investigating misdemeanor cases can only seize your possessions if you invite them into your home yourself.
  • Misdemeanor offenders can’t be jailed, held under house arrest, or forced to abstain from travel before trial. Suspects can be detained for up to 48 hours, however.
  • Offenders’ bank accounts can’t be blocked according to Russia’s federal “List of Extremists,” which only includes convicted felons.

So this is a cause for celebration? Yes, but there are a few caveats. The old six-year statute of limitations under the Criminal Code is out the window, and now police can prosecute people for very old offenses, including Internet posts from many years ago. Law enforcement has one year to prosecute perpetrators from the moment investigators are made aware of the infraction.

So what should Russians do now when confronted by police officers pursuing an “extremism” case? Here’s the advice of Vladimir Vasin, a lawyer for the “Agora” international human rights group: “The main thing you should do, if they come to you, is call a lawyer. In felony cases, investigators are required to provide a suspect with an attorney, but the Administrative Code imposes no such obligations. So you need to call a lawyer or consult one, and then go to the police or the prosecutor together with them, or at least be prepared.”

Here’s how the misdemeanor process will work: police officers or Federal Security Service agents discover some piece of evidence (usually it’s just a screenshot of some webpage), and they take it to a prosecutor, who decides whether or not to press charges. If there’s a case, an administrative investigation begins, during which law enforcement is required to question the suspect and file a formal report. The suspect is usually contacted on the phone or summoned to a police station. Officers can also detain suspects for up to 48 hours, coming to your home and escorting you to the police station to review your case file. Russia’s Administrative Code lacks any concept of “searches”; the police are only permitted to “inspect the scene.” According to federal laws, individuals are required only to open their door for officers.

The maximum lifespan of a misdemeanor investigation is one year, and the actual time it takes to build these cases will depend mostly on the speed at which experts complete their content analysis of the case evidence. After the investigation is finished, the case is brought before a court.

But if they find two Internet posts, not just one, can they still prosecute me on felony charges, like before? No. Criminal liability only kicks in for offenders who repeat within a 12-month period. In other words, any second “extremist” offense (any second post) could only occur after your first misdemeanor conviction.

Will the authorities now close any ongoing first-offense criminal investigations into online “extremism”? Not necessarily. Pavel Krasheninnikov, who chairs the State Duma’s committee that reviewed the new decriminalization legislation, says police can either close their investigations (the law is retroactive) or reclassify them as misdemeanor cases.

Yet another end-of-the-year Putin presser

🙉 What issues did Putin ignore?

The president said nothing directly about Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the two Russian military intelligence operatives suspected of carrying out a nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, earlier this year. (Putin publicly encouraged them to give what turned out to be a disastrous interview with Russia Today that fueled investigative reporting unmasking the two men as GRU agents operating under the pseudonyms “Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov.”) Putin also did not comment on Russia's “decriminalization” of first-offense online hate speech, or say anything specific about his political intentions after his current presidential term expires in 2024, when he will be ineligible to run for another consecutive term in office.

Open to everyone, except Roman

Roman Dobrokhotov, the chief editor of the investigative news website The Insider, was not permitted to attend Vladimir Putin’s annual end-of-the-year press conference on December 20. Roughly 90 minutes before the start of the event, Dobrokhotov announced on Twitter that members of the Federal Protective Service refused to let him into the venue, despite the fact that he received accreditation to attend.

In 2018, The Insider worked closely with the investigative website Bellingcat, co-publishing several reports about Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated that “99.9 percent” of journalists who wanted to attend the press conference would be allowed in, explaining that “people with serious illnesses and criminal records” would be turned away.

🌍 Cooks in the kitchen

During his annual end-of-the-year press conference, Vladimir Putin was asked to comment on the activities of Evgeny Prigozhin’s “Wagner” private military company. “All my cooks are Federal Protective Service agents,” the president said about Prigozhin, a catering magnate. “I don’t have any other cooks.”

Without mentioning Wagner by name, Putin argued that the company “has the right to pursue its business interests anywhere in the world,” so long as it does so legally. The president said this, despite the fact that private military companies in Russia are currently classified as “mercenary groups,” which are banned by the Constitution. (Last month, Russian mercenaries and military veterans even asked the International Criminal Court to prosecute Russia’s PMC organizers and facilitators for war crimes, in an effort to pressure Russian officials into legalizing the industry.)

Asked about the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic on July 30 (who died while investigating the Wagner PMC’s local operations), the president expressed his condolences, but noted that the reporters traveled to the country as tourists, without notifying the proper authorities.

What’s going on with Russia in the Central African Republic? In a new article for Coda Story, Patricia Huon and Simon Ostrovsky report on Moscow’s “charm offensive” to make the country “part of a new axis of influence,” which apparently includes everything from military aid to beauty pageants and radio stations. The story follows the Prigozhin-connected company “Lobaye Invest,” as well as shadowy figures like Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence agent, now advising CAR’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Some Russian mercenaries believe Moscow has merely adopted “the American approach” to foreign interventions: “employ PMCs that are closely aligned with the government” (like Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan). Read the article here.

Internet censorship

💉 Batenka, you're boned

On December 20, Russia’s Interior Ministry announced that it has decided to block an article published two days earlier by the website Batenka, Da Vy Transformer (an eclectic media outlet whose name translates roughly to “Old Chap, You’re a Transformer”), ruling that the text promotes illegal drug use. The website later deleted the article itself, publishing a statement saying that it has complied with orders from Roskomnadzor.

Lesya Ryabtseva, a controversial former editor at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, reported on Telegram that she filed a complaint with Roskomnadzor against the article.

The article in question, written by journalist Nina Abrosimova, is about an attractive woman who has supposedly lived “almost openly” as a functioning heroin addict for the past decade. The website calls the story “the first text in a long-running investigation into heroin’s place in modern Russia.”

Russia’s federal censor isn’t the only one criticizing Batenka’s reporting. The website’s own former chief editor, Olga Beshley, complained on Facebook that the story features “poor journalism” that merely offers readers photographs of a “pretty woman” without offering the necessary expert commentary about heroin addiction or its prolonged effects.

  • In the fall of 2017, Roskomnadzor ordered Batenka.ru to delete an article titled “What It’s Like to Be a Drug Dealer.”

📡 Block everyone

Alexander Litreev, a Russian cybersecurity expert and the founder and director of “Vee Security,” has formally asked Russia’s federal censor to block the websites of the State Duma, the political party United Russia, and the news outlet Vesti.ru (a joint project by the state television networks Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 24). Litreev addressed his appeal to Alexander Zharov, the head of Roskomnadzor, arguing that the websites violate Russian privacy laws in the same ways that recently resulted in the blocking of Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” project.

Moscow Tagansky District Court formally blocked “Smart Vote” on December 19. According to Roskomnadzor, the website 2019.vote violated Russia’s privacy regulations and abused Google Analytics and Yandex Metrics. Officials say Navalny’s team needs to notify users when collecting any personal information, obtaining their consent and providing them with a “published document that states a privacy policy.” In court on December 19, Navalny's representatives acknowledged that Smart Vote might have initially violated Russia's privacy requirements, but argued that the website now features a transparent data-collection agreement and statement of terms.

Litreev discovered that the websites for the State Duma, United Russia, and Vesti.ru all use Yandex Metrics — all without asking users for consent to process their personal data. In his appeal to Roskomnadzor, Litreev also argues that these websites offer no privacy policies. While he’s wrong about United Russia’s policy, Litreev correctly notes that the party’s website shares Russians’ personal data with a foreign third party located overseas: the site has hidden Facebook code that’s used to collect personalized statistics and analytics. Just this month, Roskomnadzor threatened to fine Facebook for refusing to store Russian users’ data inside Russia.

Responding to the court’s decision to block “Smart Voter,” Alexey Navalny has pointed out that the rationale used to justify the ruling would support blocking any website that uses Google Analytics or Yandex Metrics. At the time of this writing, neither Roskomnadzor, United Russia, the State Duma, nor Vesti.ru had commented on Litreev’s allegations.

American carrots and sticks 🥕👊

(There's no stick or baseball-bat emoji.)

The Washington-Moscow standoff got some more drama on December 19, as the U.S. Treasury Department announced a deal to remove sanctions on Rusal, En+ Group, and EuroSibEnergo, following an agreement with owner Oleg Deripaska to reduce his personal stake in EN+ from 70 percent to 44.95 percent. (According to the Treasury Department, “EN+ is the linchpin underlying the designations of these companies.”) While the deal imposes a variety of shareholder voting restrictions on Deripaska and his relatives, it also leaves him as the company’s largest shareholder, according to Bloomberg, given the fact that some of his stake will go to one of his own charities, “Volnoe Delo.” Deripaska, meanwhile, will remain under U.S. sanctions.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a new set of sanctions against Russian individuals “in response to Russia’s continued disregard for international norms.” Ironically, this included the “Deripaska-related designation” of Victor Boyarkin, “a former GRU officer who reports directly to Deripaska and has led business negotiations on Deripaska’s behalf.” (Boyarkin allegedly helped provide Russian financial support to a Montenegrin political party ahead of Montenegro’s 2016 elections.) The sanctions also target entities connected to “Project Lakhta” (part of Evgeny Prigozhin’s political influence efforts in the United States), Russian military officers suspected of cyberattack operations, and the two GRU agents suspected of trying to assassinate Sergey Skripal with an illegal poison in England earlier this year.

Yours, Meduza