RUSSIA: "Extremism" religious freedom survey, July 2012

The development most threatening to freedom of religion or belief in the Russian Federation is misapplication of the federal 2002 Extremism Law against those the authorities dislike. Such violations have increased dramatically since 2007 under both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

"Extremism"-related religious freedom violations are now so extensive that they are here examined separately from Forum 18's July 2012 general religious freedom survey of Russia.

Legal background

Two provisions of Russia's federal Extremism Law of 2002 are typically used to criminalise legitimate religious activity. Prosecutors interpret one definition of extremism – "propaganda of the exclusivity, superiority or lack of equal worth of an individual on the basis of their .. religious .. adherence or attitude to religion" – as covering claims that a particular religion or belief is superior to others. However, the right to make such claims is a fundamental part of the internationally recognised right to freedom of religion or belief.

Prosecutors may also insist that such claims fall foul of a second definition of extremism in the Law - "incitement .. of religious discord". The Russian word for discord [rozn] has a broad definition – it may mean simply division. Yet Russia's judiciary ignores the discrepancy between this term and the far stricter corresponding wording of the Criminal Code – "actions directed at the incitement of hatred [nenavist] or enmity [vrazhda], as well as the humiliation of an individual or group of persons on the basis of .. attitude to religion" (Article 282). The Code may consequently be used to prosecute simple disagreement. When committed by an ordinary member of the public, and even if unaccompanied by violence or the threat of violence, the maximum punishment under Article 282 is two years' imprisonment.

Initially, the 2002 Law stipulated that "incitement of religious discord" had to be committed in connection with violence or the threat of violence. Prosecution of activities that had no association with violence became easier, however, when this stipulation was removed in July 2007. The overall toughening of Russia's approach towards "extremism" largely shadows repressive measures in China and various Central Asian states after their June 2001 Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism (of which Russia is a co-signatory). Yet that treaty links extremism exclusively with violent acts or the planning of violent acts, as the Council of Europe's Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) pointed out in its June 2012 critique of the 2002 Extremism Law (Opinion No. 660/2011). The Shanghai Convention is the only international treaty to which the Russian Federation is a party to contain a definition of extremism.

The 2002 Law's main mechanism for prosecuting the "offence" of criticising a religion or belief is the designation of literature containing such criticisms as extremist. Even a very low-level court may issue such a ruling. If not successfully challenged, this results in automatic placement of the offending literature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Once on the List, distribution is banned throughout Russia. Religious organisations associated with particular titles may also be ruled extremist. Their members are then liable to prosecution under two articles of the Criminal Code concerning organisation of extremist activity (Articles 282.1 and 282.2). The harshest punishment these articles allow is six years' imprisonment.

Aside from "extremism", the main feature of federal religious freedom policy has been the lack of such a policy. Particularly under former President Medvedev, however, officials have come to treat state-favoured organisations within the four faiths of Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the nation's privileged "traditional religions".

Books banned

The Federal List of Extremist Materials was first published by Russia's Justice Ministry in July 2007. As of 20 July 2012, it contained 1,359 entries. These include books and other forms of printed matter, and electronic materials such as image files, videos and websites. This figure is not exhaustive, however. A few entries appear twice, some are blank where titles have been excluded, and others list multiple items.

The Federal List is now so lengthy that thorough examination of each entry is impossible. The efficacy of banning texts is questionable (particularly in an internet age), as is whether a text can be definitively proven to have caused acts of hatred or enmity. For many items there is a defensible justification for their inclusion on the List, as their titles suggest white supremacist and/or ultranationalist content. Some of the Islamic authors listed, such as Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Maududi, have promoted violence. But the justification for the inclusion of other items is doubtful. For example, two texts on the list argue for peace and respect for human rights: Muslim theologian Muhammad ali Al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim"; and the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong's leaflet "Global Human Rights Torch Relay".

The 2002 Extremism Law was initially implemented against groups that might justifiably be prosecuted for extremism. One was the Islamist political movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, some of whose literature called for anti-Semitic violence, which led to prosecutions in Denmark and Germany. The methodology of Russian prosecutors in such cases was highly doubtful, however. In some trials – such as in the Siberian city of Tobolsk in 2005 - courts were not presented with proof of membership or possession of the movement's literature by those convicted, or proof of calls to violence in the literature concerned.

Since the mid-2000s, prosecutors have steadily widened their net to encompass religious groups whose beliefs do not encourage violence. Their efforts are now directed against two: readers of the works of Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi (who died in 1960), and Jehovah's Witnesses. As of early July 2012, 22 Russian translations of works by Nursi and 68 Jehovah's Witness titles were on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. (Banned by different courts, a few of these titles appear on the List twice.)

Nursi readers

The precise motivation for the campaign against Nursi readers is unclear, as is who is responsible for it at federal level. Broadly moderate in character, Nursi's works appeal to Muslims wishing to reconcile Islamic teaching and modernity; followers meet to discuss his works in private homes over cups of tea. Official statements – including by then FSB security service head Nikolai Patrushev in 2008 – point to government paranoia that Nursi readers form a pan-Turkic "fifth column" seeking to realign towards Turkey Muslims from among Russia's Turkic-speaking minorities, such as Tatars, Bashkirs and Kumyks. Yet some state officials also insist paradoxically - and wrongly - that Nursi's works are banned in Turkey.

The first significant ruling against Nursi readers came in May 2007, when a Moscow court declared extremist Russian translations of 14 parts of Nursi's Koranic commentary, "Risale-i Nur" [Messages of Light]. This decision relied solely upon linguistic textual analysis. It ignored powerful criticism from Russia's Ombudsperson for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin, and even Russia's most pro-Kremlin Muslim leader, Talgat Tadzhuddin. In 2001 Tadzhuddin pronounced "Risale-i Nur" to be "far from religious extremism and fanaticism".

In April 2008 Russia's Supreme Court went on to ban Nurdzhular – a russification of the Turkish for "Nursi followers" - as an extremist organisation, although Russian Nursi readers have repeatedly insisted that no such distinct organisation exists. Raids by the FSB security service and riot police on Nursi readers' homes in disparate parts of Russia began in early 2009. To date, five Nursi readers have received prison terms of up to 18 months as alleged members of Nurdzhular; five others have received suspended prison sentences.

As of end June 2012, six more alleged Nurdzhular members are known to be under criminal investigation. In one case in Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, the FSB is seeking to secure a conviction using enforced psychiatric examination, a practice reminiscent of the Soviet era. Since early 2011, websites featuring Nursi writings have been blocked in Krasnoyarsk and Lipetsk regions.

In a disturbing decision that could widen potential targets for arrest, 68 Muslim texts were ruled extremist by a court in the southern Urals region of Orenburg in March 2012, and added to the Federal List in July. They include three further Nursi titles, three editions of Said Wahf Al-Qahtani's entirely benign "Fortress of the Muslim", assorted Sufi writings, and collections of hadiths [sayings of the Prophet Mohammed]. The court ruling – which took the judge just 20 minutes to reach and came to light only in June – was issued partly on the basis of analysis by an Orthodox Christian, now a priest, whose website on Islam was itself investigated for extremism in 2008. The Council of Muftis – a major Russian Muslim organisation chaired by Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, who is publicly loyal to the Kremlin - has called the Orenburg ruling an "attempt to revive total ideological control" in Russia.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Hostility towards Jehovah's Witnesses, the second religious group most commonly targeted in Russia's counter-extremism drive, has more identifiable roots. The Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is very hostile towards them. There is no evidence of a direct link, but the first phase of the state's sweeping campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses – 500 raids on their communities across the country – began just days after current Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was enthroned in February 2009. In Kemerovo and Sverdlovsk regions, state officials have requested analyses of Jehovah's Witness beliefs from local Patriarchate dioceses, and public prosecutors commonly enlist Patriarchate clergy as prosecution witnesses in related extremism trials.

In September 2009 a "counter-extremism" case launched on the back of one of the 500 February raids resulted in a court in the Black Sea region of Rostov ruling 34 Jehovah's Witness books and tracts extremist, as well as a ban on the local Jehovah's Witness organisation in the town of Taganrog. The court relied upon doubtful expert analysis that considered extremist references to traditional Christianity as a "false religion" and citation of Leo Tolstoy's criticism of Orthodoxy. Russia's Supreme Court upheld the ruling in December 2009, however, and courts in Altai republic, Kemerovo and Krasnodar regions have since designated a further 34 Jehovah's Witness titles extremist.

By early 2010, Russian Jehovah's Witnesses were reporting hundreds of detentions of their members while out preaching. They were typically held for several hours, searched for literature, fingerprinted and photographed, but not charged. Then, in July 2010, pensioner Aleksei Fedorin of Rostov region became the first Jehovah's Witness in post-Soviet Russia to be convicted for distributing their religious literature – a standard occurrence in the latter Soviet period. As this was a lesser, administrative prosecution, Fedorin was punished with a small fine: it was left to prosecutors to decide whether to pursue "production or distribution of extremist materials" under the Code of Administrative Offences (Article 20.29) or to prosecute under the Criminal Code (see above).

The first post-Soviet criminal trial of a Jehovah's Witness for allegedly distributing extremist literature began in October 2010 against a congregation leader, Aleksandr Kalistratov, in southern Siberia's Altai republic. While convicted in November 2011, Kalistratov successfully appealed and was acquitted in December 2011, two years after the case against him was launched. Even without a final conviction, the long-running nature of "extremism"-related cases such as Kalistratov's can itself prove a form of punishment.

Kalistratov's final acquittal was not the end of the campaign, however. The 2002 Law's empowering of low-level courts allows multiple prosecutions until a criminal conviction is reached. Begun after Kalistratov's case, two criminal extremism trials against three Jehovah's Witnesses continue in the disparate regions of Transbaikal and Astrakhan. In Astrakhan region, large portions of a key analysis in the continuing trial against Yelena Grigoryeva were found to have been copied from anti-"sect" websites, yet the judge has refused to reject this analysis as inadmissible evidence. In a third, seven-month trial in the republic of Mari El, Jehovah's Witness Maksim Kalinin was acquitted on 20 July 2012.

While some local administrations are more active than others, state-sponsored moves against Jehovah's Witnesses have now taken place in 80 per cent of Russia's 83 regions. In 2011 alone, the Jehovah's Witnesses reported 266 detentions, police raids and new administrative cases. Since late 2011, access to Jehovah's Witness websites has been blocked by courts in Buryatia, Chuvashia and Mari El republics, Altai and Transbaikal krais, Belgorod, Ivanovo, Kemerovo, Krasnodar and Lipetsk regions.

"Counter-extremism" drive unchecked

The state campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses shows no sign of abating: in May 2012 raids took place on at least 16 of their homes and places of worship in Orenburg region. Numerous further criminal investigations against individual Jehovah's Witnesses have yet to reach court. May 2012 charges against 17 named members of the outlawed Taganrog community are particularly significant, as participation in a banned extremist organisation is easier to prosecute than distribution of extremist literature.

In June 2011 Russia's Supreme Court issued an instruction seeking to soften implementation of the 2002 Extremism Law. Positively, it recommended that criticism of religious associations, convictions and customs "in and of itself should not be considered as action directed at inciting hatred or enmity". In its June 2012 critique of the 2002 Law, the Venice Commission further pointed out that, since the European Court of Human Rights protects "the freedom of the members of any religious community or church to 'try to convince' other people through 'teachings' (..) only manifestations of this freedom can be limited, but not the teachings themselves."

Such warnings are having next to no impact, however. Russia's leaders are well aware of the troubling trend in counter-extremism strategy. As recently as April 2012, then-President Dmitri Medvedev was briefed by human rights defender Georgi Dzhibladze specifically on the Jehovah's Witnesses' and Nursi readers' problems at a meeting of the Russian President's Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. Yet the Kremlin has failed to act.

There is no reason to suppose that pursuit of "extremism" will stop with Muslim readers of Nursi's works and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Other groups now widely regarded in Russia as "non-traditional" or "sects" have already been targeted occasionally, if so far not convicted. From June 2008 onwards law enforcement agents detained, investigated or warned Baptists, Hare Krishna devotees, Lutherans and Pentecostals in connection with extremism.

In 2011 prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk unsuccessfully tried to have the Russian translation of the "Bhagavad-Gita As it Is" – a key text for Hare Krishna devotees – ruled extremist. The case was dismissed in March 2012 following fierce criticism in India. This highlighted the Russian government's incoherent approach to counter-extremism, as to religious affairs more broadly (see Forum 18's July 2012 general religious freedom survey of Russia. Russia's ambassador to India even dismissed his fellow state officials in Tomsk who had initiated the case as "madmen".

Securitisation of religion

At the forefront of "counter-extremism" moves against religious believers is the FSB security service. Its officers are actively involved in most prosecutions, even purchasing a copy of the "Bhagavad-Gita As it Is" at a local Indian shop in the Tomsk case. Often, the approach of law enforcement agents is heavy-handed, with rough treatment by riot police. Some of the May 2012 raids on Jehovah's Witnesses in Orenburg region involved masked spetsnaz officers (normally tasked with roles such as counter-terrorism), including 12 who conducted a 15-hour raid on an elderly couple in very poor health.

Following raids on Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog, a local FSB officer told Forum 18 in March 2012 that the FSB counters "terrorism and extremism". (He refused to say which category he thought Jehovah's Witnesses fell into; Russia's 2006 Terrorism Law in any case equates terrorism with extremism.) The 2002 Law's definition of extremism is so broad that it thus allows legitimate religious activity to enter the brief of the security agencies. What lies behind this is an attitude common within the state, Orthodox Church and society that views even non-violent manifestations of "non-traditional" religious belief as a threat to the Russian nation, and therefore national security. It is increasingly reminiscent of the criminalisation of religious activities without state permission in the late Soviet period, and has negative implications for the state's treatment of other activities officials dislike, such as political opposition.

The hooliganism charges against punk group Pussy Riot for an impromptu February 2012 performance inside Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral are not a specifically religious freedom issue. But the state labelled the performance as motivated by "religious hatred and enmity" in a May 2012 police indictment against a Pussy Riot member. The indictment is notable for its equation of opposition to Orthodox Christianity with criminal activity. It accuses the group of "opposing the Orthodox world", "attempting to devalue church (..) dogma treasured and revered for centuries" and even "disparaging the spiritual foundations of the state".

European Court of Human Rights

While very slow, one possibility for redress against misapplication of the 2002 Extremism Law is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In June 2010 Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a complaint with the European Court over Russia's upholding of the Rostov regional ban on 34 Jehovah's Witness titles and their Taganrog community (Application No. 32401/10). By March 2012, Jehovah's Witnesses had submitted a further 13 applications to the European Court centring on numerous "counter-extremism" actions by the Russian state, including raids, prosecutions and bans on literature. The Court has yet to declare these cases admissible, and if it does it will be some years before they are heard.

In spring 2011 the European Court began to consider the admissibility of a joint complaint lodged in December 2007 against the banning of various Islamic works (Application No. 1413/08). It centres on the 2004 Moscow court ruling outlawing 14 parts of Nursi's "Risale-i Nur" and a similar August 2007 ruling by Buguruslan City Court (Orenburg region) against 17 Islamic texts, including Al-Hashimi's "The Personality of a Muslim". The Court has yet to reach a decision.

North Caucasus

As with the wider religious freedom situation (see previous survey), implementation of the 2002 Extremism Law differs markedly in the North Caucasus. Numerous courts there have added materials to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, particularly Islamist insurgent websites. Yet other than Nursi readers in Dagestan, practically no "extremism"-related prosecutions of individuals have occurred.

In the North Caucasus the state's "counter-extremism" strategy is far cruder. In the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan in particular, those dubbed "Wahhabis" [Muslims adhering to a purist form of Islam critical of Sufism] - and sometimes men merely with a devout Muslim appearance - may be detained as extremists by the law enforcement agencies. Local residents report that they are frequently tortured, and in some cases disappear, allegations very occasionally confirmed by state officials.

The state's crude response to violent Islamist attacks serves only to fuel local support for the Islamists, resulting in a climate of fear in which religious freedom is severely limited.


So far, only a small proportion of investigations into alleged religious "extremism" have resulted in harsh criminal prosecutions. This suggests that on some level law enforcement agents are aware their targets in fact pose little danger to state security. Yet the proliferation of such cases - particularly since 2007 - points to the growth in Russia of the idea that criticism of one religion by adherents of another is a punishable offence. This idea is not challenged by state officials, who are usually anxious to contain opposition of all kinds in order to secure their own positions. In particular, it is unlikely to be countered by ex-FSB security service chief Putin. It thus represents a serious threat to prospects for freedom of religion or belief in Russia.