Lev Ponomarev: We defended Svetlana Prokopyeva. Now we must defend Nadezhda Belova.

22 July 2020

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the national NGO For Human Rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

A few years ago, there were only a small number of prosecutions in Russia for justifying terrorism. Even then, however, the European Court of Human Rights noted that the expert assessments used in the cases was openly biased, and sometimes directly violated Russian criminal law norms.

We must admit that expertise in these cases plays a very important role, if not the main role. In their conclusions, linguists and psychologists should decide whether the suspect’s incriminating statements are actually justification of terrorism. Opinions could then substantiated and based on the definition of this concept. 

What is ‘justification of terrorism’, apart from obvious direct statements about its necessity and usefulness? In the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, it is defined as ‘a public statement on the recognition of the ideology and practice of terrorism as right, and warranting support and imitation’ (Article 205.2).

Supervisory authorities tend to interpret this concept very broadly. For example, the newspaper Vedomosti received a warning from Roskomnadzor back in 2010 for the article by Maya Kucherskaya ‘Eternal Values. A Communication Failure’, which was about the terrorist attacks in the Moscow metro, carried out by young suicide bombers. The journalist tried to figure out what happened to these women, and what led them to commit such a monstrous atrocity.

Apparently, in the FSB, any conversation on this topic has been understood since that time as a ‘justification’. The Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva essentially asked the same questions: why did 17-year-old anarchist Mikhail Zhlobitsky blow up himself in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk in 2018? What pushed him to commit such a monstrous act? What is happening to a country where young people end their lives in a way that is so terrible for society? The journalist’s reasoning on this topic was regarded as advocacy of terrorism. Svetlana Prokopyeva faced a long sentence – up to 7 years. She was very lucky: the journalism community stood up for her and a widespread public campaign was launched in her defence. As a result, she was not taken into custody, but the court’s decision greatly impacted her life: she will have to pay a large fine, her bank accounts are frozen, and she cannot use a bank card.

In fact, everyone who is convicted under Article 205.2 becomes an outcast. And their number is growing.

The tragedy of the bomber Zhlobitsky (I worry at the thought that this phrase is a “justification of terrorism,” too) has become the foundation for a number of similar cases. Experts who assess such texts see “justification” and “advocacy” in any comment on social media with a message about his self-detonation. Today, around 15 people have been prosecuted in connection with Zhlobitsky’s case.

In March, Ivan Liubshin, a 38-year-old resident of Kaluga, was the first to receive a long sentence — five years and two months in a prison colony — for a comment on social media. The assessment by experts upon which the charge is based argues that he implicitly justifies Zhlobitsky’s act. Implicitly meaning “covertly” or “secretly.” How did Ivan Liubshin do this? In two comments on his VKontakte page, he called Zhlobitsky a hero, the man of the hour, of the week. In these few words, the investigation and examiners detected “advocacy” and “justification.” They ignored the fact that any person discussed extensively in the news could be called the ‘hero’ or ‘man of the hour or the week’. Moreover, they interpreted Liubshin’s response to someone else’s comment with bias: “I’m not justifying terrorism in and of itself, of course, but…” This ellipsis seemed to them like another justification of terrorism.

In other words, any statement that expresses any doubt or questioning is equated with justification. This is where the Russian court’s approach to justifying terrorism differs with what is accepted in Europe. In European legal practice, people are only convicted for straightforward advocacy of terrorism and outright calls for violence.

Ivan Liubshin did not have the powerful public support that Svetlana Prokopyeva had, although he had every reason to be supported. Ivan was sent to a prison colony, but we continue to fight for him. His appeal is coming shortly.

Nadezhda Belova

Now Voronezh resident Nadezhda Belova is threatened with a similar fate. On 9 July a criminal indictment was filed against her. On 31 October 2018, she left a number of short comments on a VKontakte post sharing the news of the explosion at the FSB building in Arkhangelsk. According to the investigation, she did this “deliberately, for reasons of animosity towards the existing constitutional order, state authorities, law enforcement, and the military, including employees of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation; knowing the danger to the public in her actions; anticipating consequences against the public good as a result; and wishing for this result; all with the aim of justifying and promoting terrorism”.

Reading these formulations of the indictment, we can assume that Nadezhda Belova seriously discussed the need for terror, how right and wisely Zhlobitsky acted. Not at all. In front of us is the kind of chatter usual for social networks, something which can be found in their hundreds and thousands on the Internet – except possibly for the sharp anti-government rhetoric. In one of the lines, Nadezhda calls Zhlobitsky’s self-blasting a “response”, and in another line, she calls him a “martyr.”

The linguist O.N. Saprykina and psychologist T.V. Bychkova from the Voronezh Centre of Regional Expertise of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (neither of them have any academic qualifications, no publications; their work experience: since 2014, the number of conducted expert assessments is unknown) found “justification and advocacy of terrorism” in her comments. The experts reason as follows: since the author of the commentary “assesses Putin and the modern Russian authorities negatively”, and the person who carried out the explosion is described as a martyr, therefore, the action negatively assessed by society (explosion) is presented as justified in the current situation. And then the conclusion follows: the author assesses this action positively.

It is always important for the prosecution whether there was intent. It was attributed to Nadezhda Belova (and all other defendants in such cases) automatically. Neither the investigation nor the court bothered to prove intent. And if they had bothered, they would have faced an impossible task. Online communication is an exchange of comments which are spontaneous and, as a rule, emotional in nature.

But this in no way hinders the experts. They ignore the comments made in response. The individual phrases that Nadezhda Belova exchanged in the Lentach community with other users were combined into a single text and considered as one statement, although they were related to different answers. But even with this approach, Nadezhda Belova’s words do not explicitly endorse terrorism, nor do they call for it. Instead what we have is a free interpretation of her words by experts.

Another important point is the size of her audience. Let us imagine how large Natalia Belova’s online audience is. There is no doubt that in terms of the number of subscribers she is far behind the audience of any federal TV channel. In addition, the Lentach community, known for its ironic and sarcastic presentation of information, is not suitable for Russian State TV broadcasts, where respected people threaten to turn their enemies into nuclear ash.

But neither the small audience nor the style of the exchange is important for the experts. They are sure that if the author of the comments in the social network assesses the authorities’ actions negatively and undertakes to discuss the motives of the person who carried out the explosion, then they are justifying terrorism.

All of this is in gross violation of the Ministry of Justice’s methodology, which the authors of the study refer to as their methodological basis. 

It is important to note two circumstances here. Additional evidence demonstrating an “intent to propagate terrorism” in each of these cases is merely criticism of the authorities and the FSB. Expression of doubts over the legitimacy of the actions of the security forces are denounced as “evidence of justifying terrorism.” As such, it is political journalists, independent investigators and civic activists that become the most vulnerable in this situation. The second circumstance is linked to the fact that cases under Article 205.2 actually replaced the decriminalized Article 282 (on inciting hatred). One article of the criminal code was cut while the other significantly expanded in scope. It is very easy to fabricate accusations of advocating terrorism now – just look for a comment on a social network, find several “witnesses” and order a predictable expert examination. 

The list of victims under this article has grown constantly since 2018. In addition to Svetlana Prokopyeva, Ivan Liubshin, and Nadezhda Belova, it has included people of different ages and different professions who published posts or comments on social networks: Aleksandr Sokolov, Aleksandr Dovydenkov, Vyacheslav Lukichev, Nadezhda Romasenko, Pavel Zlomnov, Liudmila Stech, Galina Gorina, Ekaterina Muranova, Oleg Nemtsev, Alexander Kovalenko, Konstantin Vasilyanov, Aleksei Shibanov. All of them are critical of the authorities’ actions – it seems that it is this “motive” that is considered when making decisions to launch cases under article 205.2. 

Now think about it – did you ever write something non-trivial about a high-profile news item? Did you call someone prosecuted by the authorities a hero? Did you find a connection between such an individual’s actions and torture at the hands of the FSB? It seems that the malleable Article 205.2 can now be applied to any active supporter of the opposition. Just look at social networks, especially VKontakte. 

Let’s not forget that freedom of speech is not only about journalists. This is the legal right of each of us. And it is absolutely ridiculous when people are punished for comments on social networks, which are interpreted in a biased manner by experts at the suggestion of security officials. 

This practice should not be allowed to continue. Evidently there is now a need for the Supreme Court to rule on this topic. It needs to give clear recommendations to judges. What’s more, only highly qualified specialists in this field should be allowed to act as experts in cases of justifying terrorism. In the meantime, until this happens – it is the duty of civil society to protect those who face punishment for “justifying terrorism. The next target of  this so-called justice is Nadezhda Belova, a civil activist from Voronezh. 

Translated by Alice Lee, Nina dePalma, Simon Cosgrove and Matthew Quigley

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