European Court of Human Rights Slams Russian ‘Extremism’ Law

October 4, 2017

The European Court of Human Rights has responded to a complaint filed by Stanislav Dmitrievsky who in 2006 was convicted of “incitement of hatred and enmity” for opinions critical of Russia’s war in Chechnya that were published in a local newspaper.  The ECHR’s decision to demand 14,000-euro compensation signifies a fresh commitment to dealing with violations of judicial practice in Russia.

From the mid 2000s Stanislav Dmitrievsky was head of the “Society for Russia-Chechnya Friendship” organisation which followed human rights issues in the northern Caucasus.  He was also the editor of the newspaper “Pravo-Zashita” which published in his hometown of Nizhniy Novgorod.

In 2004 the newspaper published an appeal to the leaders of the Chechen separatist movement Ahmed Zakaev and Aslan Maskhadov, in which Dmitrievsky accused the Russian authorities of exacerbating the war in Chechnya.

A Nizhniy Novgorod court judge concluded that the published text amounted to a “call to violent overthrow of the constitutional order” and in January 2005 opened a criminal case against Dmitrievsky on charges of extremist activity.  In 2006 he was subsequently sentenced to two years probation, during which time he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Dmitrievsky claimed that the court’s ruling violated article 10 of the European Human Rights Convention which guarantees the freedom of expression.  He claimed that the criminal case against him was in fact an attempt to distort objective coverage of events in the Caucasus.

Russian authorities have predictably condemned the “use of the European Court to incite hatred and enmity”, and claim that their own verdict was justified and lawful in order to “defend the rights and interests of Russia’s multi-national population”.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg did not find in Dmitrievsky’s material anything they deemed to be an incitement to violent overthrow of the constitutional order or incitement of racial hatred.  They did, however, recognise the complicated situation in Chechnya and that the Chechen separatist leaders were in fact convicted of serious violent crimes.

This is the first time that the European Court of Human Rights has struck down a Russian ‘extremism’ ruling, and the decision sets a healthy precedent for the future as many more Russians face prosecution for ‘extremism’ after publicly expressing politically undesirable opinions.

Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights group “Agora” told Russia’s RBC that “this is a very important ruling.  The ECHR has carefully analysed the situation, the identity of the authors of the appeal and the applicant, as well as analysing the texts and have said straightforwardly that there were no incitements to violent action and the reaction of the Russian authorities was excessive and disproportionate.”

Strasbourg’s decision comes after an 11-year appeal, and signifies that the court is now beginning to pay attention to extremism cases, of which there are an increasing number in Russia today.  This is a healthy sign that the European Court of Human Rights is beginning to look into judicial misconduct when it comes to ‘extremist’ activity, a rising concern amongst human rights activists in Russia.

Accusations of extremism and incitement to hatred are commonly levelled against those who speak out against the regime publicly, or disseminate marginal political opinions.  However, what’s noticeable is that there are certain groups which appear to act with impunity, while minor opposition activists face constant harassment.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental attribute of a free and civilised society.  It is the means by which those in power are held to account, while society is able to reflect on supposed orthodoxies and advance debate.  It’s no surprise that as Russia’s political elite entrench themselves deeper and deeper behind the walls of the Kremlin, the tighter they are turning the screws on society’s freedoms.

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