Friday, October 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin’s Fight against Extremism Threatens Basic Freedoms, Activists Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 3 – As he has before, President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia must do more to fight extremism, but human rights activists both inside the Russian Federation and abroad argue that this effort increasingly constitutes a greater immediate threat to the fundamental rights there than do any of the groups Moscow has identified as “extremist.”
In a speech to senior officers this week, Medvedev said that the interior ministry and other Russian agencies must “devote particular attention to the struggle with extremism and nationalism,” arguing that recent sentences against those who violate existing law in this area should be “a serious lesson” to all (
But hearings in the Duma last week and this suggest that the Kremlin intends to so broaden the laws governing the struggle against extremism that almost any Russian citizen could be charged with that “crime,” if the authorities chose to do so, a less than encouraging indication of what “the rule of law,” to which Medvedev is committed, will in fact mean.
Responding to the president’s declarations, the Duma’s Security Committee has decided to “simplify and make still more effective [Moscow’s] struggle with ‘extremism’” by allowing prosecutors to declare a document existing in a single copy “extremist” and to close opposition media without judicial review (
Committee members said that “the number of extremist acts in Russia had grown without stopping since 2004,” a statement at odds with the Russian government’s own claims but one that they used to justify extending the sweep of anti-extremist legislation to punish not only those who engage in extremism but also those who may be thinking about doing so.
To create such a prophylactic system, the deputies proposed allowing officials to classify a social or religious group as extremist on the basis of a single warning by executive branch officials rather than, as now, only on the basis of a hearing at which the group concerned could bring evidence against such charges.
Moreover, if the amendments the committee members propose go through, groups as innocent as the seminaries of Russian Old Believers could fall on the extremist list maintained by the government if any official chose to denounce them, the possibility of which by itself represents a serious form of intimidation against all groups.
And in addition, the amendments, which have the support of pro-Kremlin United Russia deputies, would require all religious organizations to supply officials with a full description of their membership and activities, demands that would likely drive many of these groups underground.
And perhaps more seriously of all, the Duma’s Security Committee would allow prosecutors and other executive branch officials to decide what is “extremist,” an arrangement that would preclude even the limited judicial review those so charged now have and make it virtually impossible for any group the regime does not like to defend itself.
Commenting on these proposals, Lev Ponomarev, the head of the For Human Rights organization and one of Russia’s leading activists in this area, said that the amendments will make it easier for prosecutors to denounce “anyone they want” as extremist, something that “no one either under Stalin or the tsar was allowed.”
And Boris Sokolov, a Moscow professor and activist who recently lost his job because of differences with the Kremlin said that these amendments mean that “Soviet times have returned.” And he said that following these steps, he expects that “soon will begin mass persecution of those who think differently.”
(While political dissidents may well be the objects of official repression in the near future, they are not going to be the first. Over the weekend, interior ministry OMON troops went on a rampage in the city of Skopinsk in Ryazan oblast, attacking Uzbeks and other non-Russians in factories there (
Meanwhile, the widely respected international religious rights watchdog Forum 18 concludes in its annual survey that “the gravest current threat to freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia comes from the federal government’s approach to combating religious extremism” (

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