MOSCOW -- A Russian man could be jailed over an Internet exchange in which he said that God doesn't exist.
Viktor Krasnov, 38, was in court in the southern city of Stavropol on March 2. He could be sentenced to a year in prison if convicted under 2013 legislation that made it a crime to “insult the religious convictions or feelings of citizens.”
A lawyer representing Krasnov, Andrei Sabinin, said that Krasnov's accusers told the court during the closed-door hearing that they want him punished "for his remarks about God."
A prominent activist group said it is Krasnov whose freedom of conscience is being violated.
The controversial legislation was adopted following the high-profile jailing of members of the band Pussy Riot over a protest in which they burst into Russia’s main cathedral and performed a “punk prayer” urging the Virgin Mary to rid the country of President Vladimir Putin.
Putin has frequently touted what he calls traditional values and has held out the dominant Russian Orthodox Church as a moral authority for the country during his third presidential term.
Passage of the legislation deepened the concerns of liberals, Kremlin opponents, rights activists, and representatives of other religions who fear relations between church and state are too tight. Russia’s constitution says it is a secular state.
The charges brought against Krasnov last year relate to comments he made on an online discussion thread on the social network VKontakte in October 2014. The thread featured a discussion about the hierarchy and structure of the family unit.
After two young men, Dmitry Burnyashev and Aleksandr Kravstov, promoted what they portrayed as a traditional Christian vision of the family, Krasnov wrote: “There is no God,” but misspelled the word "God."
Krasnov also denounced the Bible with a crude epithet, called it a “collection of Jewish fairy tales,” and appeared to conflate Orthodox Christian holidays with Jewish ones while using wording that is widely seen as denigrating Jews.
Following the discussion, Kravtsov and Buryashev both appealed to the police. The Stavropol branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee found his comments to be “of an offensive character against a religion and aimed at insulting the religious feelings of believers,” and opened a criminal case.
Krasnov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that he had been threatened by “Orthodox Christian fundamentalists” who have warned that “they will get me, my family, and do all sorts of bad things.”
He said he has appealed to the police over death threats that he began receiving after the criminal case was launched.
The Sova Center, a Moscow-based group that monitors the use and abuse of extremism legislation, wrote in a 2015 report that it “regard[s] the prosecution against Krasnov as a violation of his right to freedom of conscience.”
Sova head Aleksandr Verkhovsky told RFE/RL that the remarks Krasnov made online do not constitute legal grounds for prosecution under the “religious feelings” law.
"This is the first time that accusations [involving this article] have reached court which we believe are not lawful,” he said. “Before this case, the instances of this article being used involved hooliganism in churches and so on."
The discussion thread is still online, although comments from Burnyashev and Kravtsov have been deleted.
Krasnov has said the comments that were deleted were offensive.
Krasnov's lawyer told the Russian legal news agency Rapsi that the Stavropol court on March 2 approved the defense's appeal to ask VKontakte to provide the full text of the conversation that took place between Krasnov, Kravtsov, and Buryashev on the social network.
According to Rapsi, which cited Krasnov's lawyer, the two plaintiffs had to be brought to court by bailiffs after failing to turn up for previously scheduled court sessions.
Krasnov said he is innocent and called the case against him “nonsense,” but was gloomy about his chances in court.
“Knowing our Russian reality, I can’t say how this will end,” he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. “If we take into account that courts are required to come out with guilty verdicts 99 percent of the time, there’s nothing I can say.”
The next hearing is scheduled for March 15.