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'Extreme Ways' Go on in Russia With Misuse of Anti-Extremism Laws

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Neo-Nazis? -- check!
Pussy Riot? -- check!
Sochi LGBT Pride House? -- check!
Scientologists, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim followers of Said Nursi? -- check!
Bloggers, journalists, human rights activists? -- check-check-check!

Wait, what?

There's a saying in Russian, "Seven misfortunes, one answer." It's about standing your ground and taking a risk to defend a principle under fire from multiple angles. When it comes to Russia's approach to combating "extremism," that's precisely what the government is doing. But in this case, the Kremlin's standing firm on air.

The stated purpose of anti-extremism legislature in Russia is to address violent crime by radical, right-wing, and quasi-terrorist groups. Say you're lucky enough to take a Trans-Siberian train from Vladivostok to Moscow, the first thing you'll hear upon arrival at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Russia's capital is a warning that no "extremist activities" will be tolerated by law enforcement, suggesting it's a government priority Number One these days. And it is, kind of.

Russia's struggle with right-wing violence is well-documented and ongoing. Since 2008, when civil society groups recorded more than 100 racially motivated murders per year, the Russian government received a lot of well-earned praise for its crackdown on right-wing vigilante groups responsible for most bias-motivated attacks. But it's Russia, man, so no good comes without a grain of salt.

The Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis is a prime authority on hate crime in Russia. The organization's director Alexander Verkhovsky is a member of Vladimir Putin's presidential human rights council, which means the group he's heading is respected by both the official establishment and independent civil society organizations.

This week, SOVA released its annual report on Russia's misuse of anti-extremism laws in 2013. The problems persist, yet no solutions are in sight. According to the organization, individuals allegedly involved in violent acts are becoming less vulnerable to "extremism" prosecutions, while freedom of speech cases against bloggers, journalists, and libraries suspected of carrying "extremist" texts are growing.

After the Supreme Court stepped in with an official clarification on what should and shouldn't be prosecuted as extremist, the amount of ridiculous cases like the trial of the Bhagavad Gita has dropped, yet state authorities still made attempts to go after such social groups as 'man-haters' and critics of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Still, SOVA says, if you want to know how the Russians are misusing their anti-extremism laws, you've got to look at the cases against Ivan Moseev, Pavel Khotulev, Vasily Purdenko, or Guzaliya Galimova, all of whom faced prosecution for expressing opinions through an online outlet.

SOVA's report says the number of questionable prosecutions for Internet content has grown by a third in 2013, raising red flags over Russia's overall treatment of dissent. Internet providers and mass media outlets are being extra-careful about avoiding such cases, leading to self-censorship. SOVA notes 83 cases when the government ordered shutting down web content citing 'extremism' without any basis.

Furthermore, in 2013 Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials grew by 590 entries. The government can't really control how its citizens access banned information because the Internet is still free and easily accessible even if there's an official blockage of information, yet the list is a key indicator of who's pissing the Kremlin off. SOVA's report says there are materials that shouldn't be on this list at all, including 26 Muslim texts, 2 Jehovah's Witnesses brochures, a number of right-wing documents, 11 publications by opposition activists such as the Pussy Riot music videos, and a range of historical manuscripts, most of which were discovered at the Ukrainian library in Moscow (surprise!).

It's a long report, and most of you can't read it yet since it's in Russian. But SOVA's vigilant tracking of Russia's misuse of anti-extremism laws is vital to understanding of the complexity of Russia's situation with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom association.