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Is Maxim 'The Hatchet' Martsinkevich a Political Prisoner?

04/11/2014 10:20 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2014

This Russian neo-Nazi activist is facing a second prison term. Could he be prosecuted unfairly?

Maxim Martsinkevich is a controversial man of the radically right-wing persuasion. His nickname is scary:Tesak, or "The Hatchet." His resume makes him a hero of Russia's neo-Nazis.

Mr. Martsinkevich has already served three years in prison for "inciting ethnic hatred with the threat of the use of violence." The infamous and horrific "Occupy Pedophilia" movement is probably his brainchild. Occupy "activists" targeted LGBT youth on social media sites, luring them on dates where the victims were humiliated and harassed, their identities and orientations revealed through subsequent videos made available to the public. In 2010, the Martsinkevich-organized Format-18 group was outlawed as extremist by a Russian court.

On April 9, the Kuntsevo district court of Moscow extended the pre-trial detention for Mr. Martsinkevich, on trial for "inciting ethnic hatred" for the second time in his life. The Hatchet was extradited from Cuba, where he overstayed his visa while hiding from Russia, in January. He will remain in custody at least through June 10, 2014.

But the devil is in the details. The case against the Hatchet is rigged and unfair. No, we shouldn't rejoice and commend Russia's law enforcement for protecting the vulnerable groups, because no matter what terrible things Mr. Martsinkevich may have done in his life, he is currently on trial for posting three self-made videos, which he distributed on his page on Vkontakte, the Russian Facebook-like platform where The Hatchet has more than 100,000 subscribers.

The videos were full of the usual Russian nationalistic propaganda and glorification of the Neo-nazi agenda, in addition to degrading references to minorities. Yet, in aggressively promoting his vile supremacist views, The Hatchet much like any of us, had simply used his social media account to exercise his constitutionally protected right to free speech.

Mr. Martsinkevich was selectively targeted for prosecution, as he's not a formal leader of any movement and there are plenty of right-wing or anti-immigrant statements that aren't prosecuted in Russia. The Russian government is using its flawed anti-extremist legislation to prosecute The Hatchet under the controversial article 282, which is so vague that it's possible to accuse nearly anyone of "inciting hatred" -- even, say, me for this blog if it's translated and distributed in Russia.

Alexey Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation defines extremism as it's prosecuted in Russia as "disagreeing with your higher-ups in a rude or unacceptable manner." The postmodernist story-teller Viktor Pelevin once wrote, "Whacha gonna do if our philologists attain professional fulfillment only as court expert witnesses," lamenting about how Russian linguists help convict people of extremist hate speech.

The current case against The Hatchet adds to Russia's record in misusing anti-extremism legislation for political means; he said something undoubtedly racist and controversial, using a popular social media outlet to distribute his views. The linguistic "experts" used by the court had no trouble identifying problems in this type of speech, yet the judge is in no hurry to rule, perhaps waiting for a political signal on how to punish the right-wing "activist."

The term prisoner of conscience (POC) is not set in stone, but roughly it's applied toward individuals imprisoned because of who they are or because of their political views and prosecuted for the non-violent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs. In 2012, Amnesty International was quick to designate the women of Pussy Riot as prisoners of conscience because no matter how controversial or offensive their Christ the Savior "performance" was to religious believers, the women broke no laws by doing it and their two-year prison terms were thus politically motivated.

Yes, Maxim "The Hatchet" Martsinkevich holds some radical beliefs, but as long as he expresses them verbally, what's the damage? Why make a martyr out of him? We shouldn't be content with the case built against him by the Russian prosecutors, just as we shouldn't accept the Russian government's unwillingness to properly investigate the "Occupy Pedophilia" actions that may have led to serious injuries to the LGBT youth victims.

Who stands to benefit from The Hatchet's ongoing imprisonment? The Kremlin, of course; after all, they worked hard to extradite him from Cuba. Now they have a "token neo-Nazi" on trial for "inciting ethnic hatred" against non-Slavic minorities in Russia, but the case will further complicate Russia's flawed approach to combating extremism. Like numerous other examples of misuse of anti-extremism laws against religious minorities, journalists, artists and dissenting voices, the current case against The Hatchet goes against the grain of Russia's constitution.

That's why Maxim Martsinkevich is on hunger strike, but unlikely to leave prison any time soon.