YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- A Russian court has declined to imprison a blogger after convicting him of inciting hatred and insulting the feelings of religious believers with YouTube videos, including one showing him playing Pokemon Go in a church.
The court in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg handed Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence after finding him guilty on May 11 in what Amnesty International called a "show trial" and an "assault on freedom of expression."
The suspended sentence means he will not be sent to prison.
Sokolovsky was arrested in September after posting a video showing him playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox church in Yekaterinburg in August, during a craze for the game app.
The post on Sokolovsky's YouTube channel, which had around 300,000 subscribers at the time, followed a warning on state television not to catch the virtual creatures at religious sites.
The video, which was laced with profanity, was among several posted on the channel in which Sokolovsky, an avowed atheist, mocked organized religion.
The Pokemon video and others led to the charges of inciting hatred and offending the feelings of religious believers.
Prosecutors had called for a 3 1/2-year prison term for Sokolovsky, who said his actions "had nothing to do with violence" and that he is not an extremist.
In her verdict, Judge Yekaterina Shoponyak said Sokolovsky’s suspended sentence could be replaced with real prison time if he breaks the law within a three-year probation period. She also ordered that the YouTube videos in question be removed.
Shoponyak denounced what she portrayed as biased media coverage suggesting Sokolovsky was being prosecuted merely for playing Pokemon Go rather than the criminal charges he faced related to hate speech and insulting the faithful.
After the verdict, Sokolovsky told reporters outside the courthouse that he had not expected to be acquitted and that he was "very satisfied" to be free.
He said he planned to be "useful to society" while keeping a low profile in order to avoid having his suspended sentence transformed into real prison time.
Acquittals are very rare in Russian courts, which Kremlin critics say routinely do the bidding of President Vladimir Putin's government and regional authorities.
Russian authorities in recent years have aggressively prosecuted individuals over online content they deem hate speech or otherwise extremist in nature.
Rights activists say many of these cases have been triggered by constitutionally protected speech.
Sokolovsky was punished, in part, under a controversial 2013 law that introduced up to three years in prison for those convicted of public actions committed with the goal of insulting the sensitivities of religious believers.
The law, which also makes it a crime to interfere with the activities of religious organizations, has been criticized by rights groups that say it can be used to stamp out dissent.
"Russian authorities have blatantly misused the criminal justice system, including draconian anti-extremist legislation, in a show trial against" Sokolovsky, Amnesty International said on May 11.
“With Sokolovsky’s conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country’s grotesque 'blasphemy' law," a statement quoted the London-based group's Russia director, Sergei Nikitin, as saying. "Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia – especially coming after the authorities only last month banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is another assault on freedom of expression.”
The law was introduced a year after the high-profile imprisonment of members of the Pussy Riot collective for a protest in which they performed a "punk prayer" in Moscow’s main cathedral urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Sokolovsky criticized the law while speaking to reporters after the verdict.
"It means any person who writes a comment online can go to prison," he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church's influence has steadily grown during Putin's 17 years in power.
Putin in recent years has repeatedly spoken of the importance of what he says are traditional Russian values and praised the church as a central pillar of Russian identity.
A substantial majority of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, but surveys show that only a small fraction attend church regularly.