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Rights Group Warns Russia Moving Toward 'Martial Law' On The Internet

Aleksei Kungurov was jailed for criticizing Russia's bombing campaign in Syria (illustrative photo).
Aleksei Kungurov was jailed for criticizing Russia's bombing campaign in Syria (illustrative photo).

Russia is increasingly cracking down on Internet users as courts impose harsh jail sentences for posts expressing political views, a rights advocacy group warned.

"The Russian authorities have begun to see the Internet as a theater of war, both inside and outside" the country, with the slightest criticism "seen as like an armed attack," the Agora advocacy group said in a report released in Moscow on February 7.

Agora's comprises some 50 lawyers who have worked on leading rights cases, including that of the Pussy Riot punk collective and radical performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky.

The advocacy group said that the Kremlin is increasingly zeroing in on what it considers "enemies" on the Russian-language Internet, known as the Runet, leading to "strong censorship" and increasing pressure on Russia's estimated 66 million to 84 million web users.

The group said it recorded seven criminal cases opened against Russians for expressing views online in 2016, with four ending in a prison sentence.

In addition, it recorded 97 proposals last year from politicians and officials to strengthen Internet controls, and 116,103 instances of "Internet freedom limitation" where content was filtered or blocked during the year. That was up from 15,000 in 2015, it said.

"All this allows us to draw a definite conclusion -- the Runet has entered a state of martial law," the Agora report said.

The Russian government also focuses on external threats, it said, with the FSB security service saying it foiled 70 million cyberattacks last year, although Agora questioned whether that figure was too high.

The report details criminal cases brought against Russian citizens, including the case of journalist and blogger Aleksei Kungurov in the Urals city of Tyumen, who was jailed for two years by a military court for online criticisms of Russia's bombing campaign in Syria.

He was found guilty of publicly justifying terrorism in December over a post on the Live Journal site.

Meanwhile, an electrical engineer from the central Russian city of Tver, Andrei Bubeyev, was sentenced to two years and three months in a penal colony last May.

He was found guilty of support for extremist activity and breaches of Russia's territorial integrity after reposting a pro-Ukrainian article and a picture of a toothpaste tube with the caption: "Squeeze Russia out of yourselves."

With reporting by AFP and Interfax
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