By RFE RL
By Carl Schreck
(RFE/RL) — Russia has already convicted a blogger for videos mocking religion, including one showing him playing Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church.
Now it’s convicted another Internet user for reposting satirical cartoons about Jesus Christ.
In the latest case highlighting restrictions on religious speech in Russia, a court in the Black Sea resort of Sochi found a man guilty of offending religious believers’ feelings by reposting several cartoons lampooning Christianity’s central figure.
Viktor Nochevnov, 32, was fined 50,000 rubles ($832) following his August 2 conviction for the images, which he posted on his page on the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte, according to a copy of the verdict obtained by RFE/RL.
Nochevnov posted the cartoons over the course of nearly a year beginning in October 2014. He has since deleted the images, according to his lawyer, and they could not be immediately located.
But according to the verdict issued by the Sochi court, they included one of Jesus working out in a gym and another showing a crucified Jesus being carried on the cross with the caption “Let’s go!” — an apparent reference to the phrase Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin uttered as he took off to become the first human in orbit in 1961.
Another cartoon showed Jesus dressed in a Nazi SS uniform with a caption playing on a traditional phrase spoken by Russian Orthodox believers on Easter.
Nochevnov could not be immediately reached for comment. But his lawyer said in a statement released by a rights group that the authorities in Sochi have stepped up prosecutions against nontraditional religious believers and others who don’t adhere to Russian Orthodoxy.
“Sochi authorities have recently donned the costumes of inquisitors and are leading a quiet battle for religious sterility,” lawyer Aleksander Popkov said in the statement.
Nochevnov was convicted under a controversial 2013 law that introduced up to three years in prison for those found guilty of public actions committed with the goal of insulting religious sensitivities.
Russian blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky was convicted under that same law in May, resulting in a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence in a case that drew condemnation from international rights groups.
Sokolovsky was arrested in September after posting a video showing him playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox church in Yekaterinburg. It was one of several videos that he was convicted for.
While he was not sent to prison, Sokolovsky was placed on an official government list of designated terrorists and extremists. His case prompted the veteran Russian journalist and television personality Vladimir Pozner to ask on state television whether atheism was now a criminal offense in Russia.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the head of the respected Moscow-based Sova Center, tells RFE/RL that convictions under the law on religious feelings are on the rise, and that almost all of the cases “are simply absurd.”
Verkhovsky, whose group tracks the use and abuse of antiextremism legislation in Russia, says that Nochevnov’s conviction in Sochi is based on “harmless jokes.”
“Of course, someone could have been offended,” he says, “but you can’t turn every potential insult into a criminal case.”
Nochevnov’s case comes amid a broad crackdown on online speech by Russian authorities in what is portrayed as an effort to combat extremism. Rights activists say that justification is often used to stamp out constitutionally protected speech.
In an online interview the same day as his conviction, Nochevnov said prosecutors tried to convince him to plead guilty but that he refused, saying he only reposted them on his personal social-media page and didn’t create them.
The Sochi court ordered Nochevnov not to leave the city until his conviction takes effect. It called his claim that he did not mean to offend anyone “farfetched” and that there was “no way he could not have known” that the cartoons would offend believers.
Nochevnov’s lawyer, Popkov, said he planned to appeal the verdict.
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