YEKATERINBURG, Russia – A Russian blogger charged with inciting hatred for playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox church went on trial in the city of Yekaterinburg on March 13.
Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested in September 2016 after posting a video of himself playing the widely popular game application in a church in Yekaterinburg a month earlier.
Investigators charged Sokolovsky with impinging on the rights of religious believers under a controversial 2013 law making it a crime to "insult the religious convictions or feelings of citizens."
Critics of the legislation say it infringes on free speech and is incompatible with the Russian Constitution.
Sokolovsky has also been charged under a law that criminalizes the "incitement of hatred" based on gender, race, ethnicity, language, ancestry, or religious persuasion. That law has been officially added to the list of laws against extremism.
Sokolovsky's lawyers say their client faces up to 7 1/2 years in prison, if found guilty.
Sokolovsky pleaded not guilty during the first day of the trial on March 13, saying his activities as a blogger were never aimed at offending anyone or inciting any hatred.
"If anyone felt offended by my video blogs, I am offering my sincere apologies to them... I am a convinced atheist, but I do not have anything against religions... I am also a libertarian, which means that I am for equal rights for everyone," Sokolovsky told the court.
Sokolovsky told journalists during a recess that he would not publicly apologize and "repent" to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church's influence on politics and society has steadily grown during President Vladimir Putin's 17 years in power. During his third term, most notably, Putin has stressed the importance of family values and touted the church as a central part of Russian identity.
Sokolovsky's YouTube channel had around 300,000 subscribers soon after his September post went online. His post followed a warning made on Russian state television not to catch "Pokemons" at religious sites.
Sokolovsky was first placed under house arrest. In October, he was sent to pretrial detention after he used the Internet and his mobile phone while at home, a violation of his house arrest according to investigators.
In January, Sokolovsky was additionally charged with "illegal possession of equipment for the secret acquisition of information." The charge was added after investigators found a pen with an installed secret video camera in it in Sokolovsky's apartment.
Sokolovsky said on March 13 that the pen did not belong to him, although it was in his apartment. Sokolovsky added that the pen is available on online sales and can be purchased legally.
Investigators also said that Sokolovsky uploaded eight other videos between 2013 and 2016 that insulted Christians, Muslims, and feminists.
In February, Sokolovsky was released from pretrial detention and again placed under house arrest.
Also in February, Sokolovsky's lawyers said they appealed their client's case with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Amnesty International has blasted Sokolovsky's arrest as a "farcical attack on freedom of expression."