Staunton, May 7 – The SOVA Center has documented what many have long suspected: the Russian authorities are increasingly using that country’s anti-extremism laws against the population but not in response to extremist actions but rather to limit Russians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech.
A recent report by the Moscow Center for Economic and Political Reforms (sova-center.ru/misuse/discussions/2016/05/d34471/) sparked significant discussion in the Russian capital because it pointed to an overall increase in the use of “anti-extremism” provisions of Russian law, SOVA says (sova-center.ru/racism-xenophobia/publications/2016/05/d34474/).
But that earlier report does not provide more granular details on the exact content of these charges against speech, something that SOVA has done over the last several years and thus can provide a dis-aggregated account of what the authorities are doing in this area that did the Moscow Center report.
There are four categories of “’crimes of an extremist character’” under Russian law: vandalism motivated by hatred, other uses of force motivated by hatred, participation in prohibited organizations and extremist communities, and public statements ranging from propagandizing terrorism to offending the feelings of religious believers.
SOVA has published data for each of these for the years 2007 through 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Charges about crimes of the first kind rose of nine in 2007 to a high of 21 in 2011 and last year numbered 16. Charges involving the second rose from 108 in 2007 to 253 in 2011and last year stood at 60.
Charges against the third category rose from 31 in 2007 to 56 in 2011 and after a brief decline rose again to 62 in 2015. But charges against hate speech have risen consistently from 44 in 2007 to 83 in 2011 to 233 in 2015. As a result total hate crime prosecutions rose from 192 in 2007 to a high of 482 in 2010 and last year stood at 371.
“It is easy to see that the number of those convicted overall has been mixed,” with the numbers in the categories not rising or falling together, SOVA says. But there are “two simple trends: the growth and then the decline in the number of those convicted for hate crimes and the uninterrupted growth of the number convicted for statements,” especially last year.
The declines in the number of sentences for hate crimes other than speech, the center says, “is in part explained by the decline of such force, but the rapid growth of the number of sentences for expressions cannot be explained in an analogous way by the stormy growth of the propaganda of terrorism, extremism, racial hostility and so on.”
Instead, SOVA suggests, this reflects a shift in official attention away from actions to speech as a means of putting pressure on “this or that political and ideological trend.” But a “no less important” factor may be that “in recent years,” the police have acquired the means to track the Internet and find doing so easier than investigating street crimes.