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How and why the Russian military puts soldiers in jail for using smartphones and social media

Source: Meduza
Petr David Josek / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Since March of 2019, Russian military servicemembers have been banned from using smartphones and posting photos taken on the job to social media. The new regulations were proposed in September of 2018, and Russia’s State Duma and Federation Council approved them the following February. After the new law received President Vladimir Putin’s approval as well and went into effect on March 17, Russian soldiers immediately began receiving punishments for violating it. After examining military court records, Meduza found that soldiers who are discovered keeping smartphones with them or posting social media photos are typically sentenced to 5 – 15 days in a military jail.

The law

In their introduction to the new regulations, Russian executive branch officials wrote that the impulse for the smartphone and social media ban came from the country’s military operations in Syria. Even before Russia officially announced its involvement in the Syrian conflict in September of 2015, investigative journalists revealed that Russian soldiers were fighting there in part by finding photographs those soldiers had posted on social media. Even before then, the Conflict Intelligence Team and other nonprofit investigative outlets published similar stories about Russian servicemembers in Eastern Ukraine.

The new law not only prohibited Russian soldiers and draftees from posting about their service on social media: it banned them from possessing smartphones, tablets, and other devices with cameras and Internet access altogether. Violating that ban constitutes severe misconduct and is punishable by up to 30 days in a military detention facility. Military courts have the exclusive discretion to jail servicemembers under the new law.

Andrey Krasov, the vice chair of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, told journalists in February that mobile phones without cameras or Internet access would still be permitted under the law. In practice, soldiers are often permitted to carry smartphones as well.

The punishments

In mid-July of 2019, several Russian news outlets simultaneously reported that the March law was only the beginning of the Russian military’s efforts to limit its soldiers’ online activities. The Defense Ministry, the journalists wrote, had decided to make similar additions to the military’s internal disciplinary regulations. A presidential order along those lines was soon posted on the Russian government’s regulations website. As of August 6, that document has not yet been approved. Multiple sources indicated that the new internal regulation was being framed as an anti-hazing measure.

Despite the news that the military’s effort to introduce these regulations is apparently ongoing, Meduza has found that large numbers of Russian soldiers have in fact already been jailed, and military courts began issuing their sentences almost as soon as the smartphone and social media law went into effect. Military court decisions available on the Russian legal system’s online portal, GAS “Pravosudie,” indicate that courts have issued dozens of decisions under the new law.

For example, on April 1, less than two weeks after the law took effect, a soldier named Andrey Tarkhanov who was serving “as a driver and mechanic” posted photographs “on the information and telecommunications network known as the Internet through the social network Instagram,” according to a decision issued by the Saratov Garrison Military Court on April 19. Tarkhanov was sentenced to 15 days in a detention cell.

Private Andrey Trubachev, meanwhile, had his “subscription-based cellular terminal with expanded multimedia capabilities” — that is, his iPhone 8 — confiscated on April 20 after he was found to have kept the device “for personal use after lights out beginning in January 2019.” The Chelyabinsk Military court sentenced Trubachev to five days in detention on May 17. On April 10, sailor Magomed-Khusein Demelkhanov was caught having a conversation “through a video connection using his smartphone” in his barracks. The Sevastopol Military Court ruled on April 24 that a single day in detention would be sufficient to punish Demelkhanov.

Some commanders have tried to get their subordinates put behind bars for smartphones they possessed before the March law went into effect. For example, a servicemember named Sergey Chernoy was found using a smartphone in January of 2019. He allegedly used the device to “take photographs and record videos in the locations where he was serving.” The Ussuriysk Military Court declined to jail Chernoy retroactively even though the soldier himself pleaded guilty.

Not every soldier who faces retroactive charges is so lucky, however. Yegor Kruglov, for example, borrowed a mobile phone from a fellow soldier and “took several of his own photos before sending them to his girlfriend using a social network” in December of 2018 and April 2019, according to a ruling issued by the Saratov Military Court on May 30. Kruglov pleaded guilty to both counts even though the first had taken place in 2018, and the court included that incident in its decision to put Kruglov in military detention for 15 days.

Is this legal?

Vadim Zhernakov, a lawyer for the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, told Meduza that the absence of internal military regulations regarding smartphones and social media posts does not, in fact, prohibit military courts from issuing decisions under March’s civilian law. “If you follow the hierarchy of authority in Russian law, then the Constitution is at the top, and then federal laws, and then bylaws,” Zhernakov explained. “And because [military] regulations must be confirmed by a presidential order, they are considered bylaws. Even if a measure is absent from a bylaw, and bylaws change more slowly than laws, decisions must be guided by federal law.”

Report by Pyotr Lokhov

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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