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Already in prison on embezzlement charges he says were trumped up, Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny could soon feel the full-force of Russia's anti-extremism law. (file photo)

Four years ago, a court in the Russian Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk watched Kill The Cosmonauts -- a satirical music video that proposed murdering space adventurers for "climbing toward heaven"-- and was not amused.

The court found that the video, by a hardcore punk group called the Ensemble Of Christ The Savior And Crude Mother Earth, constituted "extremist material." It banned the video, on the basis of a 2002 Russian law, and added it to a federal blacklist of prohibited materials.

"It is hard to imagine that the calls…contained in the text could be taken seriously even by the most radical audience," the SOVA Center, a Russian research organization, said in a 2018 report that documented how the law was being misused.

As of April 29, that blacklist of materials considered to be extremist includes nearly 5,200 items, including translations of the Bible, videos made by a splinter group of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

If indications are correct, in the coming days a Moscow court will add another organization to the list of "extremist" groups under Russian law: anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny and the network of activist groups that have turned into a major challenge for President Vladimir Putin's government.

Such an order would effectively order the organization out of existence, Navalny's allies and outside experts said.

No Concise Definition

Russian authorities' turn to the "extremism" law in their yearslong struggle with Navalny has again brought the measure into sharp focus from rights groups to legal experts who say it is sweepingly ambiguous, possibly by design: a dragnet to be used against anyone deemed a threat for any reason.

Moreover, the law itself, while stipulating what qualifies as extremism, does not concisely define what it is in the first place. Instead, it merely lists a series of offenses that would fall under the law -- for example, distribution of extremist materials, preparation of extremist acts, and incitement of hatred against religious or ethnic groups. The list also includes criticism of government officials and politicians, and, more recently, public questioning of Russia's territorial integrity.

"Anti-extremism has two meanings in Russia: one legal, one political," said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the longtime director of the SOVA Center.

Since first passed 19 years ago, he told RFE/RL, "the law has changed, there've been lots of amendments, and it's become significantly much harsher."

Over the years, Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have spearheaded a string of scathing -- and eye-popping -- investigations into government corruption, targeting some of Putin's closest allies. His most popular one to date, documenting an opulent Black Sea mansion purportedly built for Putin, is among the most watched Russian-language videos on YouTube.

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He's also organized so-called Smart Voting campaigns nationwide, initiatives that aim to sway disaffected voters and siphon votes away from candidates for the dominant, and deeply unpopular, ruling party, United Russia.

In the current case against Navalny, which is expected to result in his organizations being closed down, prosecutors charged that they were "engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans."

If upheld, the ruling would result in anyone found to be a member of such an "extremist" organization facing up to 12 years in prison. Additionally, giving money to such an organization could also result in up to 10 years in jail, and anyone seeking to use the organizations' logos, banners, or symbols could be banned from running for elected office.

For his part, Navalny, who returned to Russia in January following months of recuperation from exposure to a powerful nerve agent, has his own individual legal problems: He has been ordered to serve about 2 1/2 years in prison for allegedly violating parole conditions. He and his supporters say the case is trumped up, aimed at keeping him behind bars.

Religious Targets

The first law on the Russian books regarding the issue was passed in 2002, the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity, which is the main basis for such cases. Other provisions providing for various punishments -- misdemeanors or felonies -- exist in various other Russian laws as well.

The measure was specifically aimed at terrorism; it was passed at a time when authorities were determined to end all separatist activity in the North Caucasus -- and at a time when terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere were becoming more frequent.

Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda were the main targets of the legislation, as were fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the missionary organization Tabligh.

After a series of anti-government protests in 2011-12, protests that were organized in part by Navalny, the government began to turn the extremist legislation against other religious groups, including, most prominently, the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were labeled extremist in a 2017 Supreme Court ruling. More than 250 members of the group have been jailed on extremist-related charges.

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"Russia's anti-extremism legislation has remained vague and susceptible to being arbitrarily weaponized by local authorities," Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, told RFE/RL. "Russian authorities are making a mockery of the rule of law -- both international human rights law as well as Russia's own constitution, which protects religious freedom."

But the anti-extremism provisions have also been used against other secular targets. In 2006, a journalist was convicted for publishing statements by Chechen separatist leaders. More famously, the provision on inciting religious hatred served as the basis for the criminal conviction of the performance-art group Pussy Riot after they performed a song criticizing Russian clergy in 2012.

In 2019, a Moscow university student who posted a series of political monologues on YouTube was convicted and given a suspended sentence for inciting extremism.

New Territory

In 2020, the law was amended again to add another item to the list of "extremist activity" -- this time to include anyone who questions Russia's territorial integrity, or rhetoric in support of a region's secession. That provision appeared to be linked specifically to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a hugely popular move among many Russians.

"Putin has consistently created laws to serve his purposes," said Maksim Trudolyubov, a former Moscow newspaper columnist who now edits the Kennan Institute's Russia File.

"This time it's expanding an existing law -- that is conveniently broad -- into new territory. The tactic is not new. He's suspended his Ukraine brinkmanship for now. So, he looks reasonable to his counterparts. He is going after domestic 'threats' now," he told RFE/RL. "Apparently, [Navalny] is a designated threat at this given moment."

Verkhovsky, of the SOVA Center, argued that the law has been properly applied in many instances of clear extremist activity.

In 2002, when it was first written, "it's likely [lawmakers] didn't anticipate that it would be used against political groups," he said.

The problem now, he said, is not only the danger of how the law is defined, but the willingness of authorities to use it against a wider group of people, Navalny, or others -- particularly when United Russia's approval ratings are at record lows ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall.

"It's very difficult, and we have elections coming up, and the authorities are nervous, and when they're nervous they start wielding more and more oppressive measures," he told RFE/RL.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the estimated $700 million scheme involved a company controlled by Raimbek Matraimov bribing officials to skirt customs fees and regulations, as well as engaging in money laundering.

BISHKEK -- Raimbek Matraimov, the controversial former deputy chief of the Kyrgyz Customs Service who was placed on the U.S. Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the illegal funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars abroad, has withdrawn his libel lawsuit against RFE/RL, its former correspondent, and two other media outlets.

Lawyer Akmat Alagushev -- who represents RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, its former reporter Ali Toktakunov, and the Klopp and news agencies -- told RFE/RL that a court in Bishkek ruled on April 27 that the case had been closed due to a move by Matraimov's lawyers to withdraw the lawsuit.

Matraimov and his family filed the libel lawsuit after the media outlets published a 2019 investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop implicating him in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was subsequently assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

"RFE/RL's award-winning investigative reporting into Mr. Matraimov's corrupt dealings has always spoken clearly for itself," the broadcaster's president, Jamie Fly, said in a statement.

"Our intrepid journalists reported this story despite months of serious threats, online harassment, and an organized pressure campaign. We continue to call on the Kyrgyz government to investigate those who threaten journalists and hold them accountable for their actions," he added.

The court decided to stop the libel suit less than two weeks after Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said that the corruption probe against Matraimov had been halted, as investigators failed to find any cash or property belonging to Matraimov or members of his family abroad.

When Matraimov was rearrested in February, the UKMK said he was being held as a suspect for laundering money through the purchase of real estate in China, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates.

A Bishkek court in February ordered pretrial custody for Matraimov in connection with the corruption charges after hundreds of Kyrgyz protested a previous ruling mitigating a sentence after a guilty plea to no jail time and fines of just a few thousand dollars.

The court justified the mitigated sentence by saying that Matraimov had paid back around $24 million that disappeared through schemes that he oversaw.

That decision was based on an economic-amnesty law passed in December that allows individuals who obtained financial assets through illegal means to avoid prosecution by turning the assets over to the State Treasury.

The idea of economic amnesty was announced in October by Sadyr Japarov, then acting Kyrgyz president, just a day after Matraimov was detained and placed under house arrest.

Japarov has since been elected president on a pledge to stamp out graft and enact reforms. Japarov also championed a new constitution -- approved by voters earlier this month -- that expands the power of the president.

Critics say the amnesty legislation was proposed and hastily prepared by lawmakers to allow Matraimov and others to avoid a conviction for corruption, while the constitutional changes create an authoritarian system and concentrating too much power in the hands of the president.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the estimated $700 million scheme involved a company controlled by Matraimov bribing officials to skirt customs fees and regulations, as well as engaging in money laundering, "allowing for maximum profits."

A U.S. report on human rights around the world, released in March, spotlighted threats to freedom of expression and a free press in Kyrgyzstan.

In a section on respect for civil liberties, including freedom of the press, the State Department noted threats to journalists involved in that report, which implicated Matraimov.

In January, the 49-year-old Matraimov changed his last name to Ismailov, while his wife, Uulkan Turgunova, changed her family name to Sulaimanova. The moves, confirmed to RFE/RL by a spokesperson for Kyrgyzstan's state registration service, were seen as an attempt to evade the U.S.- imposed sanctions.

There has been no official statement from Matraimov or his lawyers to explain the name change.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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