The Moscow Prosecutor's Office has demanded that the ACF and other organizations associated with Alexei Navalny be recognized as extremist. Olga Romanova, director of the Russia Behind Bars charity foundation, describes what awaits those in Russia whom the state considers extremists.
Once there was a good boy in the city of Tver, who had just finished school. Nurlan Hajiyev, the son of refugees from Azerbaijan, a citizen of the Russian Federation. His fellow countryman from Tver fell ill and went to Turkey for surgery. Nurlan had a Sberbank card, and he transferred two (2) thousand rubles to a Sberbank account of his friend's wife. Two years later, he was sentenced to five years in a maximum-security prison for doing so. Russia Behind Bars defended him but was unable to do anything. The second story is much more well-known. Danish citizen Dennis Kristensen had lived in Russia since 2000. He worked in Oryol as a carpenter, and was a Jehovah's Witness, like his parents in Copenhagen. Two years ago, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison.
Danish citizen Dennis Kristensen had lived in Russia since 2000
The two stories are taken from case law. No matter what legal scholars may say about the actual law, case law in practice is quite different. The same will happen with the ACF and other organizations associated with the “Beautiful Russia of the Future” - the activists or even passers-by who might turn up at the wrong time will be tried arbitrarily, not based on legal logic. Here, too, the most important principle of Russian justice better known as the «the law is like an axle - you can turn it whichever way you want» will come into play. Nurlan's story is about funding and donations. The second story is about membership in an extremist organization. Let's take a closer look.
Nurlan was convicted of financing ISIS, an organization banned in Russia. Yet he merely transferred money from Sberbank to Sberbank, from his own account to the account of citizen Lebedeva, who was taking care of her husband after the operation in Turkey. The investigators said she was an improper citizen, after all she later departed for Syria. But that was later. There is another important detail: Nurlan transferred the money in July 2014, while Russia declared ISIS a forbidden organization only in December 2014.
So, what if he did not know about Lebedeva's plans, and far less about the plans of the prosecutor's office to ban ISIS. Nurlan did not see any connection between ISIS and citizen Lebedeva, and if he did, the deed was done before the ISIS ban. By the way, the criminal proceedings against Nurlan were not initiated until 2016, when the agency needed to report on what it was doing to fight terrorists. Of course, an attentive reader will immediately point out several inconsistencies: ISIS is a banned organization in Russia, while the ACF is merely extremist. And it has not actually been pronounced as such yet, although there is little doubt it will be. It's checkmate, of course. I admit I am overdoing things: the verdict will say “financing extremism” instead of “financing terrorism,” and those convicted will spend five years in a general penitentiary rather than a severe-regime one.
The verdict will say “financing extremism” instead of “financing terrorism,” and those convicted will spend five years in a general penitentiary
How about the law not being applied retroactively? It was, in the case of Nurlan. And the verdict was upheld in all higher courts. And they cannot jail everybody who donated to Navalny? Not everybody. Only the unlucky few, like Nurlan. That's donations. And what about membership in an organization recognized as extremist - like the Jehovah's Witnesses. Let me remind you that the Witnesses are purely peaceful citizens, generally outside of politics. And even Putin has called banning them “nonsense”. Well, he did say so. Since then, 463 believers have been prosecuted. Dennis Christensen was supported by all sorts of fine organizations, including international ones, but he is still doing prison time, and mostly in a punishment cell. To date, nearly eighty Witnesses have been deprived of their liberty.
Why were they recognized as extremists?
Just because. And they are not alone.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of Crimea recognized the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people as extremist, and 2,500 people - activists and members of regional mejlises - were threatened with criminal prosecution following the ban. And they are being persecuted, their accounts are being blocked, and criminal proceedings are being opened. Yet they never made films about Putin’s palaces and spas, or took people to the streets, or called for smart voting. It is not only membership of the ACF or donations to it that will be banned. Demonstration of the symbols associated with the ACF or other Navalny organizations will be equated to displaying the Nazi swastika. But here, things start to become rather nuanced.
What does the law say?
The law establishes administrative liability for displaying symbols (Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code, including administrative arrest for up to 15 days, which, of course, is a very light sentence by today's standards). People may be held liable for having posted the symbols of an extremist organization online in the past (10 or more years ago). It means that if you have ever reposted an ACF video, you may have to serve 15 days.
If you have ever reposted an ACF video, you may have to serve 15 days
So, you will do your time. You will be defended by good lawyers, but still you will most likely be imprisoned - if not to bump up the official statistics, then for the sake of holding you in a special detention center for some other purpose, for example, in order to recruit you as an informant. Such things can easily happen. Let's assume you won't be recruited or won't let them recruit you, and 15 days is not 15 years.
There are many other interesting things they can do, such as placing you on the Russian Financial Monitoring list. It deserves a separate mention, it's an extremely unpleasant thing. The full name is «the list of organizations and individuals which are known to be involved in extremist activities and terrorism.» Currently it has nearly 11,000 entries. Everyone who is suspected or accused or has served their sentence under any of the laws related to extremism or terrorism is on the list. Your bank accounts will be frozen, and not only bank accounts, your PayPal account, for example, will be frozen too. No court decision is needed for you to be placed on the list. You just land there and that's it. And you will remain there for a long time. If you eventually manage to stay out of jail, you will spend a huge amount of time filing lawsuits to get removed from the list. During that time, you will of course remain unemployed.
What should we do about all of this?
Try and lead a normal life knitting and sewing? How I wish the answer were so simple. But no. Thousands, tens of thousands of people have been living like this for years in the Russian Federation. You would not wish it upon anyone, but what can you do. You can, of course, fall into despair, but it won't help. You should file a lawsuit, and after losing it you should file another one, and another one until you reach the ECHR level provided Russia is still a member of the Council of Europe by then. The Belarusians, for example, have no such opportunity - they are not in the Council of Europe, and the ECHR is out of their reach.
If you feel you need to be careful, be careful. If you want to choose a different path, a path of struggle, you should follow that path against all odds and be prepared for everything. For those who do not wish to be a victim – you either get lucky or you do not. I believe nearly 99.999% of Russians do not wish to become victims, but the clock is already ticking. It never, ever stops. There is a nuance, however. People and organizations have different attitudes towards casual victims and the ideologically martyred. But the prison terms are generally the same. I'm just saying. It is just a matter of “case law”.