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Lyubov Kalugina, a feminist living in Omsk charged with felony hate speech

A Russian politician kills two people in a traffic collision and keeps his license, while a feminist faces felony charges for joking online about ‘asses and pussies’

Source: Meduza
Lyubov Kalugina, a feminist living in Omsk charged with felony hate speech
Lyubov Kalugina, a feminist living in Omsk charged with felony hate speech
Lyubov Kalugina / YouTube

Federal investigators in Omsk are pressing felony hate speech charges against a feminist activist over a dozen blog posts from 2013 to 2016. Lyubov Kalugina is accused of using Vkontakte to “incite hatred of men,” says the “Sova” human rights center. Officials first started building their case against her last year, following a complaint filed by an unnamed person living in Birobidzhan. Kalugina says she’s being tried for extremism “because of some jokes about asses, pussies, and intra-feminist debates.”

Felony charges over some Internet posts. Again?

Again. Kalugina joins a growing population of Russian Internet users unlucky enough to fall afoul of the anti-extremism police. Also in the headlines in recent weeks is Maria Motuznaya, a 23-year-old who faces felony charges in Barnaul because she posted allegedly racist and religiously insensitive memes.

The glut of criminal cases against Internet users has provoked some public outrage lately, especially when contrasted with courts’ frequently lenient treatment of state officials. On September 3, for example, a district court in Tyumen dropped the felony charges against Dmitry Eremeev, the chairman of the city’s legislative assembly, after finding him responsible for a traffic collision that killed two people. After paying roughly three million rubles ($44,000) to the victims’ families (equal to his reported annual income), following a hearing that lasted just 40 minutes, Eremeev was fined an additional 160,000 rubles ($2,345). He even gets to keep his driver’s license.

Prosecutors say they plan to challenge the verdict, and United Russia’s regional branch later revealed that Eremeev’s membership in the party has been suspended, but critics have been quick to point out that Eremeev avoided any jail time, while folks like Kalugina, Motuznaya, and many others could go to prison for several years.

Why are the Russian police so concerned about online hate speech?

The growing number of extremism prosecutions is, to some extent, a consequence of Russia’s exploding Internet use. “More people have started using the Internet. We used to analyze books, leaflets, and posters. When everyone moved online, we started looking at Internet content, and that’s where we stumbled into this uncharted territory,” Igor Ogorelkov told Meduza in May. The head of the linguistics department at a center that provides expert testimony to Russian law enforcement, Ogorelkov admitted that Russian extremism policing is still chaotic.

At the same time, new laws criminalizing forms of offensive speech found commonly online (racist jokes, sacrilegious memes, and so on) have armed the authorities with tools that make it easy to prosecute young, typically impressionable suspects. In January 2016, for example, the website MediaZona reported that police have exploited Russia’s “information laws” to pad their solved-crime statistics, charging Internet users who share pornography and bullying them into plea bargains.

Is the government doing anything about this worrying trend?

On September 5, the All-Russia People's Front (a “social movement” launched in 2011 to offer Vladimir Putin a national political vehicle outside the political party United Russia) announced that the Attorney General’s Office has ordered police across the country to report every felony extremism case. Federal prosecutors reportedly plan to monitor these investigations, in order to prevent excessively “liberal” interpretations of Russia’s legislation against hate speech.

In June, President Putin instructed the All-Russia People's Front and the Attorney General’s Office to analyze the country’s policing of extremism, after he received a question during his annual call-in television show about criminal cases against Internet users.

Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova has joined the chorus of public figures in Russia calling for lighter punishments against Internet users accused of spreading extremist or offensive content. “I believe it’s important for us not to expand artificially the number of people with criminal records,” Moskalkova said on August 17. Two days earlier, Deputy Communications Minister Alexey Volin endorsed draft legislation that would reduce “criminal memes” to a misdemeanor offense., the parent company that owns Vkontakte (where most cases against Russian Internet users begin), has also called for decriminalization and amnesty for people already convicted of illegal speech, so long as their actions led to no violent outcomes.

Russian police have been prosecuting Internet users for “hate speech” more and more. In 2011, courts convicted 149 people of “extremism.” Last year, more than 600 people suffered this fate.

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