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Vyacheslav Lebedev, the chairman of Russia's Supreme Court

The head of Russia’s Supreme Court says the judiciary should halt "pointless" criminal cases over online speech if investigators fail to demonstrate criminal intent by Internet users who post allegedly extremist content.

The remarks by Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev at a September 25 legal forum in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok come amid a sharp rise in the number of criminal cases in Russia over memes, reposts, and other social-media content that authorities deem to be hate speech.

Rights watchdogs and opposition groups say authorities are targeting social-media users in these cases to stifle dissenting views and pad conviction rates.

Recent high-profile cases -- including that of a 19-year-old student facing potentially up to five years in prison for a meme likening the Jon Snow character from Game Of Thrones to Jesus Christ -- have triggered mounting calls for reforms to Russian anti-extremism statutes covering online speech.

Lebedev said a rise in the number of such cases prompted a recent Supreme Court directive advising courts to scrutinize the potential "public danger" presented by the online content in question and the motives of those who post it.

"The rising trend is evident over the past three years. It was more than 100 two years ago, and now there are already 500. This concerned us," Lebedev was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as telling the forum in Vladivostok on September 25.

Several high-profile hate-speech cases in Russia in recent years have been opened over satirical social-media memes and other Internet posts mocking the Russian Orthodox Church, which President Vladimir Putin has publicly embraced as a pillar of Russian culture and tradition.

Russians convicted of hate speech or "public actions" aimed at "insulting believers' religious sensibilities" are typically handed a suspended prison sentence, a fine, or both.

In some cases, the accused have been placed on an antiterrorism blacklist pending an investigation, thus blocking their access to financial institutions.

Lebedev told the legal forum that courts should carefully examine the merits of investigators’ allegations early on in online-speech cases and halt prosecutions during the appeal process if no criminal intent is found.

He said this would prevent "a pointless investigation" and stop the case from going to trial.

The Kremlin's Council for Civil Society and Human Rights on August 22 recommended revisions to Russia's counterextremism laws, including decriminalizing a statute used to convict social-media users of hate speech.

The bulk of online hate-speech cases in Russia have been based on content published on the popular social network VKontakte, a Russian analog of Facebook that has faced withering criticism over its cooperation with authorities in such investigations.

VKontakte's owner, Mail.ru Group, called on authorities last month to change hate-speech legislation and grant amnesty to individuals "unjustly convicted" for Internet posts.

Aleskandr Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based SOVA-Center, which tracks the use and abuse of Russian anti-extremism legislation, said on Facebook that while the Supreme Court directive issued September 20 is not a "panacea," it is nonetheless "for the better."

With reporting by TASS
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her daughter Gabriella during a brief release from prison on August 23

British Prime Minister Theresa May will press for the release of a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran at a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani in New York on September 25, a senior government official said.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an employee of the philanthropic Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at Tehran airport on April 3, 2016.

She is serving a five-year jail sentence for allegedly plotting to overthrow Iran's clerical establishment -- a charge which she denies. Zaghari-Ratcliffe claims that she visited Iran to spend time with her family.

"You can expect the prime minister to raise our ongoing consular cases, including that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe" during a meeting with Rohani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the official told reporters on September 24.

"The prime minister will express serious concern about Nazanin's ongoing detention and call for her to be released upon humanitarian grounds."

The British government earlier this month advised British-Iranian dual nationals against all but essential travel to Iran and warned it has only limited powers to support them if they are detained.

The official said that May in a one-on-one meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on September 26 will discuss the poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter earlier this year in the English city of Salisbury -- an incident which London and Washington have blamed on Moscow.

Russia has denied the accusation.

The meeting with Trump will also focus on May's hopes of negotiating a bilateral trade deal with the United States after Britain leaves the European Union, the official said.

"They both have a strong commitment to securing a strong U.K.-U.S. free-trade agreement when we've left," the official said.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

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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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