The Case of Sheikh Ali Salman [Bahrain]
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The Caucasus Regional Military Court convicted a prominent Salafist Imam of glorification of and incitement to terrorism and sentenced him to five years in prison. The charges stemmed from the Imam’s sermon in which he criticized the closure of Salafist mosques and urged peaceful resistance. The Military Court heavily relied on expert testimony that analysed the content of the Imam’s speech. The expert opinion declared that the sermon contained statements that incited hatred towards law enforcement, the government, and non-Muslims. Following an appeal, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the conviction but slightly reduced the term of imprisonment to 4.5 years.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that some of the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources.
Khasavyurt Magomednabi Magomed is a prominent Salafi Imam who preaches in Dagestan, in the North Caucasus Region. On February 5, 2016, he gave a sermon at a mosque in Eastern Khasavyurt Township to roughly 8,000 parishioners in the presence of law enforcement. The sermon focused on the closure of Salafi mosques in Dagestan. In his sermon, Imam Magomed highlighted the persecution of Muslims in the region and the human rights abuses they had been subjected to. In doing so, he criticized the government and urged parishioners to unite and peacefully resist encroachments on their religious freedom. The sermon was subsequently published on YouTube.
Imam Magomed was charged with public incitement to terrorism or its glorification under Article 205.2, section 1 of the Russian Criminal Code, as well as incitement to hatred under Article 282, section 1 of the Russian Criminal Code.
The Caucasus Regional Military Court (Military Court) sentenced Imam Magomed to five years in prison. The Military Court heavily relied on analysis of a linguist expert to make a determination on the following four questions:
In answering the first question, the linguist explained that he analyzed the structural components of the speech, the value judgments associated with certain objects, negative or positive associations of certain words, and whether words were used literally or in relation to the context in which they were spoken.
He then proceeded to look at a part of the Imam’s speech that discussed the closure of mosques in Uzbekistan in the 1970s. Imam Magomed said that God would punish those responsible for closing mosques and argued that the Soviet Union fell apart because Allah decided to punish communists for closing the mosques.
The linguist concluded that this portion of the Imam’s sermon labelled Muslims as a superior group in opposition to the inferior non-Muslims. First, the expert defined “Allah” as a term with positive characteristics. The linguist reasoned that, by extension, the sermon suggested Muslims shared these characteristics while non-believers did not. Accordingly, the linguist concluded that when the Imam referred to Muslims, he referred to superior qualities of a certain group on the basis of their belief.
He continued by reviewing the part of the sermon that criticized those responsible for closing Salafist mosques in Dagestan. The Imam had claimed that Allah would punish them, and urged his listeners to speak-up against the closures. He also alleged that practicing Muslims in Dagestan were being killed and threatened, forcing them to flee the country. The linguist concluded once again that the Imam used the term Muslims to refer to persons with positive characteristics, while those “who wished to close God’s houses” were inferior. On the basis of these conclusions, the expert declared that Imam Magomed’s calls to action against the closure of mosques was glorification and justification of terrorist activities.
The linguist declared that there were no words in the Imam’s sermon that incited listeners to commit acts of terrorism. The expert did not provide an explanation for this conclusion.
The linguist focused on several parts of the Imam’s speech to answer this question. For instance, Imam Magomed stated in his sermon that “[t]he Prophet declared that the best jihad is to tell an idol-worshipper to his eyes that he is wrong, so that he could hear those words. Today we are here to say together, that together we do not want to commit any crimes or go against any systems. We are saying, leave us alone, only a few village representatives are here, leave us alone, Islam existed, exists, and will exist until Judgment day.”
In another part of the sermon, the Imam said “Allah tests us in many ways and today the test has come to the doors of His House. But we must say no, we will not allow it, we have nothing to lose. You can take our property, kill our relatives, take away our jobs, but you cannot close the House of God – it is the pride of all Muslims to protect it. We, the Council of Imams and our wise men, our grown men, decided to declare the following – mosques are being closed in Dagestan illegally.”
The Imam also alleged that some followers were framed by the government and arbitrarily detained. Imam Magomed went on to say that conflict was proliferated among Muslims to divide them and to satisfy the government in Moscow.
The linguist concluded that these statements urged listeners to fight against oppressors and to unite into a single group on the basis of religion to oppose idol worshipers, whom he equated with the Russian government. Thus, the expert declared that the speech contained elements that incited listeners to hatred or violence on the basis of nationality, religion, ethnicity, or belonging to a social group.
In reviewing this question, the linguist explained that his methodology in relation to this question required (i) a review of the audience and actions that are incited by the speech, (ii) a review of the future actions of the audience, (iii) a determination of the form of the allegedly inciting speech and an analysis of its content, and (iv) an identification of elements of indirect incitement in the speech.
The linguist concluded that the following statements made by the Imam contained elements aimed at inciting one group to undertake hostile actions against another group: “[w]e have a problem. We are oppressed in a manner that does not allow us to remain silent. So we have come here today to discuss this […] If the government is responsible, it is the beginning of its collapse; if a person is responsible, it is the beginning of his end – this is what happens when the House of Allah is touched.”
The following part of the Imam’s speech was interpreted by the linguist to be a rallying call to fight: “[a] person comes to an Imam and asks to review documents. He then annuls them and the next day says that there are problems with the documents because they are expired. So we go to our landlords but they are nowhere to be found because they are scared […] In this short period 13 mosques have been shut down, or locked with a key that was taken away from us. We do not care, mosques that we built are ours and no one has the right to take them away from us.”
In another segment, the Imam said, “[e]very day we see blood flowing. Why? Because they need to report to [them], and they are fine with one or two persons dying as long as they can report that they completed their task. Whose task are they performing? […] If someone wants to see it, we will show how they arrest and extort to target a person. I was forced to assign bodyguards for Imams. You ask why? Because in our city and district Imams are studied, they are followed, photographed, their routes are recorded. Do you think this is done to help the Imams? No! This is done to send the Imams away. Is this legal? Can any government representative tell me if this is legal? If it is illegal, why does it continue to happen?”
After reviewing the three segments above, the linguist concluded that Imam Magomed’s statements included terms related to fighting, eradication, destruction, and incitement. Therefore, the linguist concluded that the Imam’s speech harshly criticized and expressed hatred toward representatives of certain national, religious, ethnic, or social groups.
On the basis of these conclusions, the Court sentenced the Imam to five years in prison.
He appealed, but in late January 2017 the Supreme Court of Russia upheld the conviction and slightly reduced his sentence to 4.5 years.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision is highly problematic to freedom of expression. The Russian court penalized legitimate government criticism and political speech, which enjoys heightened protection under the international law standards on the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the Russian courts used criminal sanctions against an Imam for peacefully calling for greater respect for human rights in Russia, in particular the right to religious freedom and freedom from discrimination. The UN Human Rights Committee has consistently stated that measures restricting or limiting freedom of expression can never be justified where they are for the purpose of “muzzling advocacy of […] democratic tenets and human rights.” The Russian human rights NGO “Memorial” declared Imam Magomed a political prisoner who was arrested for exercising his freedom of speech. Furthermore, the decision also undermines freedom of religion because it characterized elements of religious speech as extremist.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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