Russian Internet personalities have rallied to the defense of a blogger, who was convicted of hate speech for a video in which he played Pokemon Go in a church, shortly after he was placed on an official government list of designated terrorists and extremists.
The video, published July 16 on the popular YouTube channel of St. Petersburg-based blogger Danila Poperechny, came days after it emerged that Ruslan Sokolovsky had been added to an official list of "terrorists and extremists" maintained by Russia's Federal Financial Monitoring Service.
Sokolovsky, 22, was convicted in May of inciting hatred and insulting believers' feelings with videos mocking religion that he published on his YouTube channel, including one showing him playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox Church.
His conviction and 3 1/2-year suspended sentence triggered widespread criticism from rights activists and discussions about whether publicly professing one's atheism is a crime in Russia, where the Orthodox Church's influence has steadily grown under President Vladimir Putin's 17 years in power.
In his appeal to the Russian government, Poperechny called Sokolovsky's listing alongside known terrorists -- including one involved in the 2004 Beslan school attack -- absurd. He urged lawmakers and officials to amend "fuzzy" anti-extremism laws long criticized by rights watchdogs as overly broad, and to remove Sokolovsky's name from the list.
"Ruslan didn't even call for [religious believers] to be killed. He didn't organize any religious persecutions. He simply expressed his opinion on his YouTube channel. And, of course, published a video in which he played a game inside of a church," Poperechny said.
"Do you understand how dangerous this person is on a government scale?" he added sarcastically.
The video, which had garnered more than 400,000 views on YouTube a day after it was published, was supported by eight other popular Russian bloggers. The group has a cumulative audience of 17.5 million people, the Russian online news site TJournal calculated.
'Harsh And Unpragmatic'
Senior Russian officials this year have publicly fretted over whether the government is effectively reaching young people who largely look to the Internet and social networks for information about what's going on in the country.
Those concerns have been amplified by nationwide protests organized by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who has deftly used his digital presence to build a youthful and loyal following with his anticorruption crusading.
Navalny on July 17 praised the video supporting Sokolovsky that Poperechny and his fellow bloggers published, calling it "excellent."
In May, Russia's lower house of parliament invited a popular video blogger known as Sasha Spilberg to speak at a hearing devoted to youth politics. In her speech, which critics called largely toothless, Spilberg called Sokolovsky "an idiot" who should be "treated or fined," but not prosecuted.
"Prosecuting people like this is harsh and unpragmatic," she said. "And it certainly doesn't engender trust among young people."
Precisely when Sokolovsky was placed on the official list of terrorists and extremists is unclear. Aleksei Bushamkov, a lawyer for the blogger, wrote on Facebook on July 14 about his client's designation, saying that all of Sokolovsky's bank accounts had been frozen.
Sokolovsky was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying that "all of my [bank] cards are blocked," but that he did not know why.
Sokolovsky, whose sentence last week was reduced by more than a year, is one of numerous Internet users convicted of hate speech and other violations in Russia in recent years based on social-media posts and other online content.
Rights groups have accused authorities of carrying out a broad crackdown on online speech that has ensnared people exercising constitutionally protected speech.