On February 4, RFE/RL welcomed long-time Russian human rights advocate Ludmila Alekseeva to its Washington, D.C. office to discuss Russia's "extremism law" and how it is being used by authorities to harass NGOs, journalists, and human rights groups.
Alekseeva was joined by a panel of experts in Washington along with Irina Langunina, a senior Russian RFE/RL journalist, via videoconference from Prague.[A transcript of the briefing is available here.]
Alekseeva, who is chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
, noted that much of the criticism surrounding Russia's 2002 law to combat extremism stemmed from the legislation's vague wording. According to Alekseeva, key terms like "extremism," "terrorism," and "social groups" were never specifically defined in the law, giving Russian enforcement authorities broad latitude in determining which organizations, individuals, and activities were covered under the law.
In practice, Alekseeva said, the law has frequently been interpreted to include any criticism of government officials -- including content published on personal blogs and on the Internet, leading to prosecutions over what she called rather "ridiculous" incidents.
In Fall 2008, the Russian authorities created a special department (known as "Center Eh") specifically for the enforcement of the extremism law. Alekseeva explained that this department has interpreted the law's definition of "extremism" very broadly, and has monitored public organizations, human and civil rights groups, and religious minorities.
A frequent target of such activities are minority religious groups. For example, Alekseeva said that any Muslim who frequents a mosque that is not on the "white list" (list of state-approved mosques) is likely to be accused of extremist activities -- some have received 8 to 15-year prison sentences.
Alekseeva said that this persecution was due "not only to sheer incompetence" -- both by lawmakers and those who enforce the laws -- but also "a habit of Russian bureaucracy" which seeks to resolve any issue "not through analysis, persuasion, or consensus, but rather through coercion, intimidation, and repression."
RFE/RL's Irina Lagunina attempted to put the extremism law into the context of the Russian legal system. In addition to two other laws restricting political parties and NGOs, Lagunina said that the extremism law was part of a triumvurate of laws that worked to restrict freedom of speech and civic participation in Russia. Lagunina noted several notable examples of ways in which the law had been abused -- in one case, a blogger was prosecuted for a comment he had posted on his LiveJournal page which was harshly critical of Russian police; the authorities claimed that policemen were a "social group" protected under the law's prohibition on "incitement of hatred against any social group."
In another case, Lagunina explained how a newspaper had been sued after an anonymous reader had posted an incendiary comment about Muslims on one of their online articles. Even though the offensive comment was removed by the newspaper within two hours of its posting, the newspaper was still prosecuted for being a conduit of "incitement of hatred" against Muslims.
According to Langunina, RFE/RL's Radio Svoboda
also felt the effects of this law after they ran an interview with Dokka Umarov
, now the leader of the Chechen resistance. Russian authorities warned Radio Svoboda that if they ever broadcast Umarov's statements again they would be prosecuted -- under the extremism law, it is illegal to broadcast the messages or statements of any "terrorist groups." Authorities also demanded that Radio Svoboda hand over all tapes, notes, and data on the interview (they refused).
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis
, reminded the audience that the law was "not all bad," and had been applied against legitimate targets as well. [Click here
for SOVA's statistics of attacks by racist and neo-Nazi groups in Russia] The problem, Verkhovsky explained, was that the authorities used the same legal norms against both real extremist groups and human rights advocates.
Verkhovsky reiterated the problem of vague definitions in the law; protected "social groups" are very vaguely defined, meaning that Russian authorities can arbirtrarily decide who can be defined as "social group."
Ivan Pavlov, chairman of the Institute for Freedom and Development
, spoke about one case in particular -- a raid on the offices of Memorial
, a Russian human rights advocacy group. Pavlov explained how police had executed search warrant on the group's headquarters -- even though it turned out that the target of their criminal investigation was not Memorial or its members, but rather the editor of an extremist newspaper in St. Petersburg.
Asked to justify their search warrant, police alleged that the editor of the extremist newspaper had handed over the finished copy of an incendiary article to someone at Memorial. Curiously, however, no search warrant was issued for the offices of extremist newspaper itself, nor the editor's own home.
The police's evidence, it was revealed, was based on the report of a surveillance team, who claimed that someone matching the editor's description had been seen entering and leaving the Memorial offices -- despite the fact that there has never been any evidence of cooperation or coordination between Memorial and the extremist newspaper. However, it soon became clear that the target of the surveillance had not been the newspaper editor at all, but rather Memorial's headquarters, which had in fact been under surveillance for nearly a year.
Pavlov explained that this was indicative of the environment in which rights advocates found themselves in Russia today.
During the question and answer session, Lagunina also added that although few journalists had actually been imprisoned under the law, they were nevertheless victims of the repressive atmosphere it created. As a journalist in Russia, Lagunina said, "You are constantly intimidated and harrassed, and reminded that you are being watched. You have to be careful."
--Alex MayerVideo Links:Presentations (part 1)Presentations (part 2)Presentations (part 3)Q and A (part 1)Q and A (part 2)