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Criminal research A Russian court sentences a college student to 2.5 years in prison for reposting ‘extremist’ images that he says were part of his thesis research

By nearly all accounts, Alexander Kruze is a model citizen. When he finished high school, instead of grabbing an academic exemption from the military, Kruze deferred his college enrollment and served in Russia's armed forces. When he returned to civilian life, he resumed his education, studying criminal law at an institute in Voronezh. To pay his tuition and raise money for his ailing father’s medical treatment, Kruze moonlighted at a candy factory. This spring, now 23 years old, Kruze was supposed to defend his thesis on “countering contemporary extremism.” Instead, he’ll spend the next two and a half years behind bars, after a court convicted him last December of using the Internet to incite extremism. The same court also banned Kruze from using social media for the next 18 months. His crime? He reposted four images on Vkontakte. On February 12, a district appeals court upheld the verdict. Meduza summarizes a special report by Eva Merkacheva in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, cataloguing Kruze's Kafkaesque nightmare.

Alexander Kruze (right)
“Support for Political Prisoners”

What four “extremist” images did Alexander Kruze repost, and why did he share them? He says that three of the four images were actually part of his thesis research: he posed online as different fictional personalities and shared “extremist-like” content, chatting privately with other users and trying to ascertain the reasons for their attraction to hateful ideologies. In one of these conversations, Kruze even revealed to his subject that he was conducting research for his schoolwork.

According to Eva Merkacheva, who spoke to Kruze, none of the images he reposted has actually been added to Russia’s repository of illegal extremism. The first image shows two soldiers crouched together beneath the flags of Ukraine and Russia, sandwiching a crossed-out Star of David, above the slogan: “Let’s turn this fratricidal war into a war of liberation!” Kruze says he used this photo in his research, wanting to know why people like it and how they interpret it. He says he pulled the image from a website affiliated with the pro-Russian separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine, and didn’t pay special attention to the Star of David, though he pointed out to Moskovsky Komsomolets that he’s actually half Jewish. The image in question is easy to find online.

The second and third images contained photos of the late Russian nationalist Maxim Bazylev, attached to excerpts from some of his speeches: one from 2005 reading, “We’re saying that Moscow has ceased to be a city for Russians, and is losing its ethnic face,” and another that said, “Nobody will bring you power in your own state — there will be blood and our mothers’ tears.” The website TJournal says Vkontakte blocked access to at least one post containing Bazylev’s first speech (adding a message that reads, “This content is blocked in Russia by order of the Krasnodar Court), though Moskovsky Komsomolets claims that the text of Bazylev’s speeches are easy to find online. (Meduza was only able to find news reports related to Kruze’s case.)

Kruze also shared an image that apparently wasn’t part of his thesis research, but he insists that there’s nothing criminal about the repost: a crossed-out hammer and sickle, flanked by archival photos of people executed by hanging, and the words: “Instead of leaves, Communists will hang from the trees.” Kruze confesses that he doesn’t like Communists, but he says it never crossed his mind that someone would interpret the image to be an incitement to violence against Russia’s modern-day Communists.

Kruze told Moskovsky Komsomolets that investigators ignored content on his Vkontakte page that he says exonerates him (such as 1930s jazz by black musicians, which he says proves he isn’t a racist).

Remarkably, Kruze’s original case file didn’t even mention that he was researching criminal extremism for his thesis. He says his case officer even rewrote some of the paperwork, removing a note Kruze added about his academic research. The officer told Kruze that he could raise the issue at his hearing. Once the trial got underway, however, the court refused to call any witnesses who could testify that Kruze had merely been working on his thesis.

When Kruze refused to sign a plea bargain with the police, one investigator allegedly threatened to “put the screws to him.” When police started visiting Kruze “almost daily” at work (endangering his desperately needed employment), he finally relented and agreed to an expedited hearing. On December 28, 2017 — roughly five months after federal agents first raided his apartment — Kruze was convicted of inciting extremism and sentenced to two and a half years in a low-security prison. “His family was in shock,” writes Moskovsky Komsomolets, “but the investigators and the judges apparently hoped they would be thrilled.” After all, it wasn’t eight years and it wasn’t a maximum-security prison. Many Russian Internet users aren’t so lucky.

Just two weeks after Kruze’s first verdict, Vladimir Putin held his annual news conference with journalists from around the world. Fresh from a near-fatal knife attack, Ekho Moskvy deputy chief editor Tatyana Felgenhauer asked the president about “groundless” criminal cases “being initiated for social media reposts and text messages.” Putin told her that state investigators don’t consider these cases to be groundless, explaining that “such disputes can only be resolved by courts.”

On February 12, a district appeals court upheld Alexander Kruze’s conviction.

Update: One detail not mentioned in the Moskovsky Komsomolets report is that Alexander Kruze was previously convicted of sharing “extremist audio-materials” in June 2015, after he uploaded an mp3 file titled “A Wonderful Skinhead Has Appeared in Our Home.” Three months after the verdict, the song was added to Russia's Internet blacklist. Kruze was fined for the infraction, but he never had to pay the money, thanks to a general amnesty.

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