Practice of implementing the most contentious provisions of the so-called “Yarovaya Law,” aimed at fighting and preventing terrorism, raises concern among Russia’s legal community about its being used solely for improving law enforcement performance rates.
Dmitry Ugai, a yoga instructor from St. Petersburg, was in the end lucky enough to dodge the bullet: the court dropped all charges against him, and he wasn’t fined for illegal missionary work. The scare was real, however – and at the same time absolutely surreal for him and everyone following his case. Ugai was detained in the process of giving a lecture on yoga at a festival in St. Petersburg, and accused of illegal missionary work. It has become illicit for anyone but the representatives of registered organisations and groups, and individuals who have entered into formal agreements with such bodies, under one of the provisions1 of the notorious “Yarovaya Law”2 – legislation penned and lobbied last year by Russia’s ultra-conservative lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, and aimed at tackling the terrorist threat on multiple fronts.
Implementation of the missionary provision has already caused a stir in Russian society: A good dozen of people from different religious organisations all over the country were reported to have been charged with illegal missionary work and fined. But it was the “yoga case” that elicited the most outrage.
“Imagine how many people across Russia do yoga these days. The case got them worried,” Anatoly Pchelintsev, prominent defence lawyer specialising in religion-related cases and editor in chief of the Religiya I Pravo (Religion and Law) magazine, told Legal Dialogue. “Unfortunately, we are likely to see more of such cases emerging in the future: law enforcement needs to boost its performance rates, to show it is doing its job.”
In theory, the provision was supposed to target jihadists in the North Caucasus who pose a terrorist threat, and through missionary work to recruit new allies. But so far it has focused on random people.
In August 2016, a Hare Krishna follower was almost convicted of illegal missionary work in the southern city of Cherkessk after someone complained that he stood on a street corner and told two passers-by about his faith3. In October 2016, an American was fined in the city of Oryol for conducting Baptist services and organising Baptist gatherings in his apartment4. In December 2016, a court in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok ordered The Salvation Army, an international Christian organisation, to destroy 40 copies of the Bible, finding that it incorrectly labelled the books5.
The problem with the missionary provision, explains lawyer Pchelintsev, is that its definition of missionary work is loosely phrased and allows law enforcement to interpret it as they see fit. “Good lawyers would interpret this definition correctly, but illiterate law enforcers – which most of our police inspectors are – would not. This is why enforcing of the law is so defective,” he said.
Ugai, Pchelintsev said, gave an ordinary theological lecture that had nothing to do with missionary work, and his case was a clear violation of the law. “But there will be more and more of these cases now, because law enforcement needs to report statistics of investigation and closing these cases,” he added.
Similar concern is related to criminal cases involving the charge of “failure to report terrorism-related crimes”. This charge was introduced to Russia’s Criminal Code by another provision of the “Yarovaya law” targeting terrorist accomplices. It outlined criminal liability and punishment of up to one year in jail for not reporting terrorism-related crimes known to be being planned. The first case under that charge was opened in January 20176.
The defendant, Askhab Khizriyev, a resident of Chechnya, was said to have known that his friend was planning to join the Islamic State terrorist organisation and had been detained several months earlier en route to Syria. Khizriyev had not reported him, the investigators claim, and was therefore subject to criminal prosecution.
To prove its case, the prosecution does not need much, says Timofei Shirokov, a defence attorney specialising in terrorism-related charges. “Testimony of witnesses, and the confession of the person planning to commit the unreported crime, would be enough,” Shirokov told Legal Dialogue. “Plus, when we’re talking about terrorism-related crimes, main suspects are usually closely monitored, followed and surveyed in different ways, their apartments and phones are bugged – so law enforcement does have a way of keeping tabs on their associates and to accuse them of failing to report.”
Processing these cases will help law enforcement to demonstrate how its fight against terrorism has intensified, the lawyer added. “Previously they would arrest 30 people because of a terrorist crime they were preparing to commit, but charge only three. Now they would be able to charge all 30 – for failing to report their associates,” he said.
Defending people charged with failure to report will be difficult, Shirokov pointed out, and will have to be done at the investigation stage. Once the case gets to court – the defendant would most likely be convicted. “Acquittal rates are extremely low in Russia in general, and I have never heard of an acquittal on a terrorist-related charge,” he said.
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|1.||Provision on missionary work, Federal law dated 6 July 2016, No. 374 FZ “On amending the federal law ‘On counteraction to terrorism’ and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation in regard to addition measures of counteracting terrorism and ensuring public safety’” http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_201078/bdb2754392763f4c0afbdb3bc7ea77ef6a5287c4/|
|2.||Federal law dated 5 July 2016, No. 374 FZ “On amending the federal law On counteraction to terrorism and other legislative acts of Russian Federation in regard to additional measures of counteracting terrorism and ensuring public safety’” https://rg.ru/2016/07/08/antiterror-dok.html, see also: Evgeny Berg, ‘Russia’s Controversial ‘Yarovaya Package’ Targets Missionaries, Threatens Privacy’, Legal Dialogue, Nr. 1, December 2016, http://legal-dialogue.org/russias-controversial-yarovaya-package-targets-missionaries-threatens-privacy|
|3.||Hare Krishna follower might become the first victim of the Yarovaya Law, Vedomosti, 11.08.2016 http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/08/12/652705-pervim-postradavshim-zakona-yarovoi-mozhet-stat-krishnait-cherkesska|
|4.||A missionary from the U.S. fined in Oryol for violating “Yarovaya law”. Interfax, 5.10.2016|
|5.||The Bible was added to the “Yarovaya Package”. Gazeta.RU, 28.12.2016 https://www.gazeta.ru/social/2016/12/28/10454177.shtml|
|6.||Grozny resident is accused of failing to report a potential IS fighter, Caucasian Knot, 16.01.2017 http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/295993/|