Saturday, May 21, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Fight against Extremism Lacks Clear Definitions, SOVA Head Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 21 – Russia’s struggle against extremism “does not have clearly defined tasks” because the government “cannot clearly formulate them,” and as a result, various officials, operating on the basis of “their own interests” rather than on the basis of law act in ways that contradict one another, according to the head of the SOVA analytic center.

Not only does that shortcoming undermine the rule of law and the protection of the rights of citizens, but it means that some genuinely extremist materials escape any ban at all while many entirely innocent publications are deemed extremist, thereby sending a chill through the entire society.

In an interview published this week in “Epoch Times,” Aleksandr Verkhovsky says that “in any country, there are legal limitations of rights” when they come into conflict with other rights or goals, but in Russia, such limitations go far beyond that because the state has failed to define the basis for such limitations (

Verkhovsky says that in his work, he encounters what are clearly legally justified limitations on religious texts that are clearly “directed” at inspiring hatred toward others. “Here I understand why they are banning them,” he continues. But “often, I do not understand” because there is no apparent basis for taking this step.

According to the SOVA leader, this is at least partially explained by what he believes is the fact that officials “themselves do not know what they want to achieve” by their acitons. In order for there to be understanding, there is a need for one side to be able to explain its acitons to another.” But in the case of Russia’s struggle with extremism, that isn’t possible.

“The state cannot formulate [these tasks] clearly,” either because it lacks the ability to do so or because it wants to retain maximum flexibility. And consequently, “many various groups of bureaucrats” act independently and often in contradiction with one another because they are “guided by their own interests and ideas” rather than by the legal definitions.

Some officials engaged in these activities undoubtedly are sincere in their stated belief that this or that religious group is “socially dangerous and must be uprooted.” But others appear to be doing so to attract attention, justify budgets or out of personal vindictiveness,m all things that undermine the rule of law.

“The main repressive mechanism” in this struggle is the banning of the distribution of materials “recognized as extremist,” Verkhovsky says. And on the basis of judicial decisions, the justice ministry maintains a list of publications that have been declared extremist. “But one must not use this list” because of a whole range of problems.

There are many mistakes in this list, the result of multiple decisions which sometimes find a particular work extremist and at other times declare it not to be and of the failure of the justice ministry to update the list in an appropriate and timely fashion. And consequently “it is clear that this cannot work in principle.”

And there is another problem, Verkhovsky notes. “In the law it is written how this list is to be added to but nothing is said about the basis on which materials can be removed from the list … [Thus,] this situation is not legal because in this case there are no norms” as any legal arrangement requires.

In the opinion of the SOVA chief, there should be “either an amendment to the law or a directive of the Justice Ministry regulating this procedure or an explanation by the Supreme Court.” But none of these things has yet happened, although he adds that “a resolution of the plenum of the Supreme Court” is working on these issues.

That effort, he adds, allows “the weak hope that some kind of wise explanations will be adopted and that they will have obligatory force.”

Another serious problem in this area, Verkhovsky points out, is the use of the charge of extremism by officials without the sanction of a court. That isn’t supposed to happen under the law, but by drawing analogies with materials that have been banned, officials often broaden the scope of anti-extremist actions.

And still a third problem involves the use of expertise in deciding whether this or that item is extremist. Ten years ago, expertise was not widely employed; now, it is involved in almost every case, and Verkhovsky says, it is being misused, with experts expressing their view on whether something is extremist, a conclusion only judges are entitled to make.

The situation of experts on religious or other groups is like that of a specialist on ballistics, Verkhovsky says. The expert can be asked about how a bullet flew or from what gun it came, “but it is impermissible to ask him who killed Sidorov or whether he was killed because of hatred. If such a question is given to an expert, this is a crude procedural violation.”

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