By Paul Goble
Fifteen years ago this week, Vladimir Putin signed the law “On opposing extremist activity,” a measure that is now Paragraph 282 of the Russian Criminal Code and one that as amended and applied over the years has become almost as terrifying as the notorious Article 58 that Stalin used against all and sundry to fill the GULAG.
Initially, Yekaterina Bogdanova of the 7×7 news agency says, many human rights activists were skeptical of the measure but did not “massively criticize it” because it appeared to include certain protections. But those have been ignored by the regime and the courts and the constitutional rights of Russians are being trampled upon (7×7-journal.ru/item/97104).
“The number of sentences under ‘extremist’ paragraphs has been growing at more than arithmetic progression, and the list of extremist materials has already grown geometrically. Defenders of freedom of speech now speak more often about the need if not for complete ‘liquidation of ‘the anti-extremist’ law, then at least its major overhaul,” she says.
The Russian law has been criticized by international organizations who have pointed out that many of its victims now must be called political prisoners because they are being punished by the Kremlin not for criminal actions but because the regime does not approve of what they think or say.
European countries have laws against extremism, but the number of cases there has been very small, but in Russia, “more than 650” such cases were brought last year alone, up from only 137 in 2011. This has happened, SOVA head Aleksandr Verkhovsky says, because “our Russian courts simply forget to assess the level of social danger” of any action – even though that is required by the law itself.
Perhaps even worse, the SOVA chief continues, has been the compilation and expansion of lists of “extremist materials,” including books, articles, and videos, and then banning them is “stupid.” Nonetheless, the list continues to grow, from fewer than 80 in 2007 to more than 4,000 now.
And in many cases, the term “extremism” has been applied to things that no international standard or even Russian law in general would justify and without any regard to the danger that this or that statement or picture represents. But everything is lumped together, and the term now means little more than something the authorities don’t like at a particular moment in time.
Banning publications is “a Russian innovation,” Bogdanova says; but banning organizations is something done in many countries. But experts see a problem with the way in which Russia has done so. The application of this part of Paragraph 282 is so elastic that the number of organizations declared extremist has risen from eight in 2007 to 47 in 2015.
And things are getting worse, not only with respect to the application of the law but also with respect to the law itself as ever more provisions are added not to provide new protections but to allow the authorities to apply it ever more widely. Perhaps Bogdanova’s most useful contribution is to list these expansions of what she calls “the well forgotten old.”
In short, she demonstrates that at 15, Paragraph 282 is now vastly more dangerous than it was at its birth, with no sign that it will be reined in anytime soon.