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Russian Activist Convicted For Repost...About Repost He Was Convicted For


Dmitry Semyonov: "At least now we know what the working day of an FSB officer is like."

It's no secret that social media reposts can land you in hot water in Russia, where numerous people have been fined or imprisoned in recent years for sharing content deemed "extremist" by authorities. But what if you repost news about your punishment for reposting banned content?

As opposition activist and politician Dmitry Semyonov found out this week, that's not always safe either.

A court in the central Russian city of Cheboksary on March 16 found Semyonov, 27, guilty of "mass distribution of extremist materials" for reposting a news item about his earlier conviction for reposting "extremist" content.

Both this week's decision, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL, and the earlier one concerned misdemeanor charges and resulted in fines for Semyonov, a political activist with former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's nongovernmental organization Open Russia.

But his convictions come amid what rights watchdogs call a broader crackdown on online speech by Russian authorities over the past several years, one that targets not only racist and xenophobic content but also political and religious speech that free expression advocates say should be protected.

At the center of Semyonov's most recent clash with authorities is a photograph of Russian federal lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, a conservative firebrand most widely known for his high-profile crusades against LGBT rights.

Vitaly Milonov is a prominent crusader against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights from St. Petersburg.
Vitaly Milonov is a prominent crusader against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights from St. Petersburg.

In November, Semyonov was charged and convicted of misdemeanor distribution of extremist material for a 2014 repost that featured a photograph of Milonov wearing a T-shirt that read: "Orthodoxy Or Death."

Milonov has repeatedly been photographed wearing shirts bearing that phrase. But based on a 2010 ruling by a Moscow court, the phrase was included in the Justice Ministry's official list of banned extremist materials because it was deemed to stoke religious hatred.

Semyonov was fined 3,000 rubles ($50) after being found guilty, a decision criticized by the respected Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks the use and abuse of antiextremism legislation in Russia.

And then things took a turn for what Semyonov calls "the absurd." In late December, the activist took to his account on Vkontakte -- the popular Russian analogue of Facebook -- and reposted an item about his case that was originally posted by Open Russia. The description in the original post contained the phrase "Orthodoxy Or Death."

From Dmitry Semenov's Vkontakte page: "Semenov Convicted For Photo Of Milonov"
From Dmitry Semenov's Vkontakte page: "Semenov Convicted For Photo Of Milonov"

Two weeks later, an officer with the regional branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- Russia's main security agency and the main successor to the Soviet KGB -- noticed the post while conducting an "investigative operation" monitoring "regional Internet resources," according to court documents.

"At least now we know what the working day of an FSB officer is like," Semyonov quipped on Facebook last month after being called in for a meeting with police. "They study my Vkontakte page in close detail every day."

Semyonov's lawyer, Aleksei Glukhov, said on Facebook that they would appeal the March 16 conviction.

His two misdemeanor convictions followed his 2015 conviction on a criminal charge for reposting an article by a prominent liberal political commentator Matvei Ganapolsky that included an image featuring Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that the court deemed extremist.

Semyonov was convicted and fined 150,000 rubles ($250) for the May 2014 repost, though the court immediately amnestied him, thus clearing the conviction from his record.

Semyonov ran as a liberal candidate in last year's federal parliamentary elections and had planned to run in local elections in Cheboksary this year.

In an interview with RFE/RL following his March 16 guilty verdict, Semyonov said that he believes the reposting cases are aimed at interfering with his political work.

"If it had just been one time, it could have just been written off as a coincidence," he said.

He noted that journalists reporting on the Milonov picture have not been charged with disseminating extremist material.

"It turns out that that all journalists are allowed to quote that phrase, but I'm not allowed to," Semyonov said by telephone.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.