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Zoya Svetova on the case of the vlogger Ruslan Sokolovsky: "A Feeling of Outrage" [Radio Svoboda]

posted 11 May 2017, 01:44 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 11 May 2017, 01:50 ]

3 May 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

By Zoya Svetova, journalist, activist, recipient of the Moscow Helsinki Group Award for defending human rights, former member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission (POC)

On May 11, the Verkh-Isetskii district court in Ekaterinburg will reach a verdict in the case of the 22-year-old vlogger Ruslan Sokolovsky. The prosecuting attorney has already requested three and a half years in prison for Sokolovsky. It seems that for the first time in Russia an accused person could be jailed for “insulting religious believers.” A new version of Article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code was passed by the State Duma after the “Pussy Riot case,” and, according to experts, this was a very timely occurrence. There have not been many court cases under this article, and defendants usually get off with fines or community service, or the cases are closed after the expiry of the period of limitation. Therefore, the term requested by Ekaterina Kalinina, Sverdlovsk region’s best public prosecutor, caused a great shock to many.

The criminal case against the young blogger from the Urals, who calls himself an atheist and a libertarian, began after he uploaded a video in which he catches Pokemon on his smartphone in an empty Orthodox church. He catches them and catches them. He doesn’t disturb the congregation: the church is almost empty during the video. This alone would not have been a big deal, but, when uploading the clip at home, Sokolovsky overlaid the sound of church hymns, changing the words of prayers to foul language. Representatives of the Ekaterinburg Diocese filed a report with the investigative authorities, the blogger was arrested, and he spent some time in a pre-trial detention centre and under house arrest. At the trial, Sokolovsky was charged on nine counts of extremism and seven counts under Article 148. All the counts are related to the content of his videos.

I confess: I too watched this video about catching Pokemon in a church. Did it hurt my feelings, as a faithful Orthodox Christian? I confess: no, it didn’t. I didn’t like the clip, but there was nothing more to it. I did not watch any of Ruslan Sokolovsky’s other videos. But this in no way means that the vlogger should be sent to prison for such works of “art.” Absolutely not!

The government, the investigation, the prosecution, the court, and the Russian Orthodox Church have together made this young guy and his actions famous.

Amnesty International has declared Sokolovsky a “prisoner of conscience.” This is accurate: after all, the young man was detained for a nonviolent crime, for expressing his opinion! Thirty-five years ago in the USSR this same Amnesty International also declared believers who were persecuted by the KGB and given prison terms by the Soviet courts to be “prisoners of conscience.” Only then, believing in God and going to church was a rebellion, whereas now criticizing Church clergy is a rebellion.

It’s surprising that no lawyer has yet challenged this article of the Criminal Code in the Constitutional Court. Why is there an article on offending the feelings of religious people in the Criminal Code but there is no article about offending the feelings of atheists? Generally speaking, how does one offend feelings? And can you be tried for this? The article’s wording is vague, allowing for absurd interpretations and making absurd prosecutions possible.

For example, in February of this year, the Investigative Committee in the Kirov region, following a statement by a local lawyer, inspected the beer factory in Kirov that released the “Trifon” beer with a picture of musician Sergei Shnurov. There is no picture of St. Trifon on the label, but offended believers are supposedly certain that the beer was named after this revered saint. I raise no question about the fact that some competitor has it out for the Kirov beer factory, but this yet again proves the elasticity and plasticity of this article of the Criminal Code. Here’s another example: one month ago, a resident of Ekaterinburg filed a claim with the prosecutor of Sverdlovsk region. She requested that the Nevyansk Icon Museum be inspected concerning offence to believers’ feelings. When visiting the museum, a woman were outraged by one of the exhibits: a chest made in the 1930s from icon panels.

It is unlikely that these two cases will go to court, but as regards Ruslan Sokolovsky the police officers of the Anti-Extremism Centre clearly feel considerable enthusiasm and, like real sleuths, see sedition everywhere. The fact that the blogger called the Russian Constitution a ‘shit hole’ and the President an ‘irreplaceable dictator’ clearly put them in fighting mood. That was the moment, probably, when Ruslan Sokolovky’s fate was sealed. As an aide to the much-loved Article 282 (‘Extremism’), we now have the new Article 148 in the section of the Criminal Code on ‘Crimes against State authorities’, which in itself confirms the fusing of Church and State, criticized by Sokolovsky.

Explaining why Sokolovsky should be isolated from society, the state prosecutor, Kalinina, comes out in defence of the state but not of believers’ feelings: ‘Expressing disrespect of the State is impermissible. If an individual does not approve of it, he can leave, but Sokolovsky does not do that, he simply expresses negative opinions, and does not suggest something in its place.’ Can one imprison someone for simply expressing disrespect for the State? Imprison someone who wants to express his views, which do not cause anyone physical or moral damage? Should we consider as moral damage the words of witnesses for the prosecution who said that they had wept after seeing Sokolovsky’s video? But even so, you don’t imprison the author of a video for bringing people to tears!

The charge and criminal case against Ruslan Sokolovsky is the latest stupid joke bringing to mind what was far from the best time in Russian history. Ruslan Sokolovsky made this point in his final address to the court: ‘There was a time, long long ago, when people were sentenced to the camps for longer than three and a half years, for as long as ten, for telling obscene jokes about Stalin or communism. Today I am to be sentenced to three and a half years for an obscene joke about Russian orthodoxy and Patriarch Kirill. As far as I am concerned, this is simply savage and barbaric, I don’t understand how such a thing is possible. However, as can be seen, it is perfectly possible – a sentence of three and a half years is being asked for’.

This whole story produces a feeling of deep shame as regards the so-called believers. At the court hearing Solovovsky recounted how, in detention, religious prisoners threatened him with rape. On hearing this one of the witnesses for the prosecution, describing himself as Russian Orthodox, happily exclaimed ‘Well, that’s a way to re-educate him!’

If Sokolovsky is hidden away in a prison this will bring no dividends for the Russian Orthodox Church. It will only damage it. It is impossible to offend the genuine faith of genuine believers for – as is well known – ‘God is not mocked.’*

* A reference to The Bible, Galatians 6:7 King James Version: ‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ [ed.]

Thanks for Mary McAuley for assistance with the translation