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Putin is watering down Russia's controversial felony statute on ‘hate speech,’ but the news isn't all good

Meduza
Anna Altukhova / Interpress / PhotoXPress

On September 3, 2018, Vladimir Putin submitted two pieces of draft legislation to the State Duma that would partially decriminalize “extremist” offenses under Criminal Code 282, which prohibits hate speech. Meduza explains why these new amendments have several drawbacks, besides the obvious benefit that there will be fewer felony cases against harmless Internet content.

What’s getting rolled back?

Putin’s amendments would introduce a new misdemeanor statute, making first-time extremism offenses punishable by fines as high as 20,000 rubles (about $300), up to 100 hours of community service, or 15 days in jail. Felony penalties would take effect if an individual commits an “extremist” crime twice within a period of 12 months. These reforms would only apply to “light hate speech,” however, and first-time offenders would still face felony charges under aggravated circumstances (if their actions were carried out by organized groups, with the use or threat of violence, or by a person through their “official position”).

Legal entities would be subject to the same reforms, facing administrative fines as high as 500,000 rubles ($7,600).

The good

Once adopted, the amendments should lead to fewer Criminal Code 282 felony cases. (Russia’s justice system has abused this statute more than any other in its persecution of Internet users.)

The bad

The reforms will unleash a wave of new misdemeanor cases. Administrative charges are a lot easier to bring than criminal charges, and police officers will likely take advantage of the new statutes. Currently, the two most common misdemeanor charges involving extremist offenses are based on administrative statutes against “demonstrating Nazi or extremist symbols” and “producing and distributing extremist materials.” Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the “Sova” human rights center, told Meduza that police opened 3,500 extremism-related administrative cases in 2017. (In that same time, officers launched only 650 felony cases against crimes related to extremism.)

The reforms will create yet another statute prohibiting activities by legal entities, including mass media outlets. Russia already has a federal law and an administrative code banning media outlets from “abusing the freedom of the press” and distributing of content that justifies terrorism or “promotes a cult of violence and cruelty.” Now there will be yet another misdemeanor statute available to the police that can be enforced against any newsroom or other organization, like an NGO.

Police will turn to other felony statutes to prosecute “extremism” suspects. Russia’s Criminal Code is still packed with other statutes that can be enforced against Internet users who carelessly repost allegedly extremist content. Law enforcement could charge these individuals with offending religious sensitivities, justifying terrorism, inciting separatism, and more. Damir Gainutidnov, a lawyer at the Agora human rights group, told Meduza that Russia’s police could very well fall back on these other extremism-related felony offenses.

Putin ignored the advice of his own Presidential Human Rights Council chairman. Human rights activists and lawyers who have been monitoring the abuse of Russia’s extremism-related felony statutes proposed detailed reforms to the country’s legislation and law enforcement. The presidential council recommended decriminalizing all nonviolent forms of “extremist speech,” and advocated moving non-aggravated violations of Criminal Code 282 to Russia’s administrative code with substantial additional revisions. The Kremlin ignored most of this advice.

These mild reforms make a more meaningful revision of Russia’s anti-extremism policing unlikely, at least in the near future. Once Putin’s amendments are adopted by federal lawmakers, it will be even harder to achieve further changes when it comes to the legislation fueling Russia’s persecution of Internet users.

Text by Alexander Borzenko and Denis Dmitriev, translation by Kevin Rothrock