Sunday, July 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Focusing on Extremist Propaganda Rather than Extremist Violence, SOVA Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 21 – Moscow currently is bringing more charges for the dissemination of xenophobic ideas via the Internet than they are for those who engage in hate crimes, a reflection of the fact that the rapid growth of social networks among Russians has made it far easier for the police to monitor the web than to investigate serious crimes, according to independent experts.

            Among the consequences of this trend, according to Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the director of Moscow’s SOVA Center which tracks extremist crime, is that readers and librarians are today far more likely to be charged with crimes than are those who prepare extremist materials or engage in violent acts (

            Last week as the number of items on its official extremist materials list reached 1950, the Russian interior ministry announced that its officers, who registered 696 extremist cases in 2012, was on a pace this year to increase that number by 50 percent, both numbers far higher than the 130 violent “hate” crime cases brought in 2004.

            While some of these cases involve violent acts, an ever-increasing share is made up by those involving the dissemination of extremist materials via the Internet, Verkhovsky said, noting in the words of “Novyye izvestiya” that “it is far easier” to find extremism online than “to investigate serious xenophobic crimes.”

            Indeed, the SOVA expert said, the police can make themselves look good by coming up with as many cases as they need by filing charges against those who disseminate or even view extremist materials that way. As the extremism list expands and more topics like “propaganda of homosexuality” are classified as such, the easier it will be to increase these numbers.

            As the paper’s Margarita Alekhina pointed out, “responsibility for the dissemination of these [extremist] materials rest not with the authors but with the administrations of schools, libraries and internet provides who have ‘insufficiently reliably blocked access to them’” in the view of the authorities.

            In Russia’s regions, she continued, prosecutors often bring charges against librarians only to discover that the latter do not have copies of the Federal List of Extremist Materials at all or have one that is out of date. Given that the list is reviewed “almost weekly,” that puts many of them at risk.

            Verkhovsky added that prosecuting librarians for such crimes is inappropriate. “On the one hand,” he said, they like everyone else, are prohibited from disseminating extremism. But “on the other,” they are required to retain books they have purchased even if those are later determined to be “extremist.”

            This puts librarians in an impossible position: “one law requires them to get rid of a book, but another prohibits them from doing so.” Several years ago, the SOVA expert noted, there had been efforts to come up with a Soviet-style spetskhran system, but the justice ministry “for some reason ‘buried’” that effort.

            At the same time, Verkhovsky said there is a problem with definitions. If “’mass dissemination’” of extremism is the crime, can libraries, which typically have only one copy of a book or journal, in fact be charged under its terms?  Unfortunately, as Alekhina documented, that is exactly what is happening.

             School administrators find themselves in “a no less complicated situation,” she continued. If they don’t set up filtration systems on their computers, they can be charged, but if they set up systems that make it impossible for students to use them to do their work, they can be charged under other laws. They too have no way out.

            But the most serious result of this situation is this: the police are focusing on such easy targets and allowing many extremist crimes involving force to “remain unpunished,” even when they have the evidence they need to bring charges and secure convictions.

            According  to Irina Sheleketova, who heads an immigrant rights group, “those in [Russian] law enforcement does not like to work with crimes based on hatred” and will often refuse to lodge charges of that despite evidence, yet another way in which Moscow can produce accurate statistics that nonetheless present an inaccurate picture of what is going on.

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