A total of 89 individuals and religious communities across Russia are known to have been brought to court in 2015 for possession of literature dealing with religion or beliefs, Forum 18 News Service has found in an analysis of court records. None of this literature appears to incite the violation of human rights, violence or hatred. Of these, 79 ended up with punishments, including four individuals who received jail sentences.
These figures represent an increase on the previous year, when 56 punishments (all fines) resulted from 65 prosecutions for possession of religious literature the authorities deem "extremist".
The cases were brought under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences ("Production or mass distribution of extremist materials"). In 33 cases, courts ordered the confiscated religious literature to be destroyed.
Two Muslims and two Jehovah's Witnesses received short-term jail sentences. Jehovah's Witness A. Bokov was initially detained for 10 days in Voronezh because he was unemployed with no source of income to pay a fine – his sentence was reduced on appeal to six days and he was released immediately after his appeal hearing on 9 December. In Krasnodar Region, Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Yeltavsky was sentenced to 12 days on 2 July but released on appeal the next day (see below).
Metin Karakoch, director of the Turkish Language Centre at Astrakhan State University, was detained for two days on 27 May for posting text from books by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen on a local internet forum – he subsequently left Russia for Turkey. In Perm Region on 26 March, Yevgeny Menshenin received a five-day sentence for sharing the video "The Wonders of the Koran" on the VKontakte social network (see below).
Islamic prosecutions continue, Jehovah's Witness prosecutions increase
Although a majority of cases involved banned Islamic texts or videos, prosecutions for alleged dissemination of Jehovah's Witness material have shown a marked increase throughout 2015, Forum 18 has observed (see below).
This is consistent with a general increase in law enforcement attention towards Jehovah's Witnesses in 2015 and 2016. This has included several attempts to liquidate local communities, blocks on imports of Jehovah's Witness literature, and an ongoing prosecutor's suit to outlaw as "extremist" the Jehovah's Witness translation of the Bible.
Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code punishes "production or mass distribution of extremist materials included in the published Federal List of Extremist Materials, as well as their production or storage for mass distribution". Once a court – even a low-level court - has ruled a text "extremist" and the verdict has come into force, the ruling must be communicated within three days to the Justice Ministry, which maintains the Federal List. The item will then be added to the List within a further 30 days, banning its distribution throughout Russia.
Despite the term "mass distribution", prosecutors have often brought charges even if only one copy of a text is discovered. No state agency has answered Forum 18's questions on whether it is right that people should be punished for their possession and whether such prosecutions are a sensible use of police and prosecutors' time.
The Russian authorities began similar prosecutions in Crimea soon after they annexed the territory from Ukraine in March 2014.
The Federal List now runs to over 3,000 items, often does not include full bibliographical details, and is irregularly updated. Checking whether a particular item is on the List can be very difficult or even impossible. The removal of an item from the Federal List is rare and can be short-lived, and in recent years, new texts have been added at an increasing rate.
From 23 November 2015, an amendment to the Extremism Law stops some, but not all, sacred texts - "the Bible, the Koran, the Tanakh and the Kanjur, their contents, and quotations from them" - from being ruled "extremist" and placed on the Federal List.
Massive fine increases in 2015
From May 2015, organisations in Russia – including religious communities – have faced sharply increased fines for the distribution of items on the Federal List. Amendments signed into law by President Vladimir Putin doubled the minimum fine for "juridical persons" (which include commercial, publishing, media and registered religious organisations) to 100,000 Roubles (now 12,300 Norwegian Kroner, 1,300 Euros or 1,500 US Dollars). The maximum fine was raised 10-fold to 1 million Roubles.
The amendments have not increased fines for individuals or officials. If convicted, individuals continue to face a fine of between 1,000 and 3,000 Roubles, or up to 15 days' imprisonment. Fines for people acting in an official capacity (including individuals such as bookshop owners) range from 2,000 to 5,000 Roubles. (Each 1,000 Roubles is now equivalent to 120 Norwegian Kroner, 13 Euros or 15 US Dollars.)
Many other individuals are charged with offences under Article 20.29 for dissemination of material which does appear to incite the violation of human rights, violence or hatred. Forum 18 found a total of 849 cases under Article 20.29 in 2015 – this figure includes prosecutions for both religious and non-religious texts, videos, images, and songs, and for both material which does appear to be violent or racist and that which does not.
Prosecutors may use convictions under Article 20.29 as evidence of "extremist" activity and grounds for the dissolution of a religious organisation. This has been the experience of six Jehovah's Witness communities so far (in Taganrog, Samara, Abinsk in Krasnodar Region, Tyumen in Siberia, and Belgorod and Stariy Oskol, both in Belgorod Region), although the Russian Supreme Court overturned the dissolution of the Tyumen congregation on 15 April 2016. Liquidation proceedings are continuing against a seventh community in Cherkessk in the North Caucasus. One Muslim community, in Borovsky village in Tyumen Region, has also been dissolved for this reason.
If an entire religious community is banned as "extremist", its former members may face criminal prosecution if they continue to meet informally. Sixteen Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog were convicted on 30 November 2015 of "continuing the activities of a banned extremist organisation." Rostov Regional Court rejected their appeals on 17 March 2016 and the convictions have now come into force.
On 2 March 2016, Russia's General Prosecutor's Office issued a written warning "that engaging in extremist activity is not permitted" to the Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. This document, seen by Forum 18, makes specific reference to the distribution of prohibited literature as "extremist" activity which the Administrative Centre must prevent or face dissolution. The General Prosecutor's Office advises that "practical and organisational measures" must be taken within two months (ie. by 2 May) or the entire Jehovah's Witness association will be subject to liquidation.