Content Regulation / Censorship, Hate Speech, Public Order, Religious Expression, Political Expression
Gündüz v. Turkey
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Verh-Setsk Regional Court of Yekaterinburg convicted a video-blogger, Ruslan Sokolovsky, of offending the feelings of religious believers and inciting hatred toward a social group through the publication of nine videos on YouTube. In one of the videos, he was playing the popular mobile game Pokémon Go in a church in Yekaterinburg and he was making statements questioning the existence of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammed. On the basis of expert testimony, the Verh-Setsk Regional Court held that Mr. Sokolovsky’s videos mocked Christianity, Islam and its believers, and incited hatred toward them. Mr. Sokolovsky was given a three-year suspended sentence, and was banned from public events for the duration of his sentence. The nine videos were also ordered to be removed from the internet.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression could not identify the official legal and government records on the case and that the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources. It must be noted that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding this legal matter will be updated as an official source becomes available.
In 2016, Ruslan Sokolovsky, a video-blogger with over 250,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, began releasing content on this channel that was critical of the Russian Orthodox Church. He explained his work was inspired by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
On August 11, 2016, he published a video on YouTube in which he played the popular mobile game Pokemon Go in the Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg. Mr. Sokolovsky explained that he made the video in response to a law that was passed in July 2016 which prohibited playing Pokemon Go in certain locations, including places of worship.
In the video, he made offensive statements in the form of a church hymn, and ridiculed the foundations of Christianity. For example, he said “[u]nfortunately, I was unable to catch the rarest Pokemon – Jesus …. They said it doesn’t even exist, so I’m not really surprised.” The video was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
Mr. Sokolovsky’s video was widely criticized on Russian national TV networks. For example, a Russia-24 (Россия 24) broadcast said that his video was offensive to the feelings of believers. The Russian Orthodox Church also complained about Mr. Sokolovsky’s video in its publications, calling it a horrific act that disparaged the church.
On August 19, 2016, the Ministry of Interior for the Sverdlovsk Region issued a press release in which it explained that Mr. Sokolovsky’s video was identified during monitoring, and that it had been sent to the Center for Combating Extremism to determine whether it violated Article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code which penalizes violations of freedom of conscience and religion.
Additionally, on the day of the press release, a national news service Ura.ru (Ура.ру), requested the police review another of Mr. Sokolovsky’s videos entitled “An Ideal Orthodox Marriage?” on the basis that it might offend the feelings of believers. In the video, Mr. Sokolovsky mocked the religious guidance on how to create a good family.
Mr. Sokolovsky was arrested on September 2, 2016 in his apartment and charged under Articles 282 (incitement of hatred) and 148.1 (public acts aimed to insult the feelings of religious believers) of the Criminal Code in relation to nine videos on his YouTube channel. He was also charged under Article 138.1 of the Criminal Code (illegal sale of special technical resources used for secret surveillance) because a camera pen was found in his apartment.
On September 3, 2016, there was a hearing before the Kirovsk Court of Yekaterinburg. The proceedings were closed to the public and members of the media. The Kirovsk Court found that there was enough evidence to merit a further investigation and placed Mr. Sokolovsky into a temporary detention facility for two months while the investigation continued. He was later placed under house arrest.
In February 2017, Mr. Sokolovsky’s case was moved to the Verh-Setsk Regional Court of Yekaterinburg (Court). On February 27, 2017, the Court extended his house arrest to August 2017.
On March 13, 2017, Mr. Sokolovsky’s trial began. The prosecution sought that he be imprisoned in a penal colony. This was because, in their view, he could not be effectively punished by a fine due to his unemployment and lack of assets.
The defense denied guilt, arguing that Mr. Sokolovsky had no intent to offend anyone, he did not use aggressive inciting language in his videos, and the experts who reviewed the videos were biased.
On May 11, 2017, the Verh-Setsk Regional Court of Yekaterinburg (Court) found that Mr. Sokolovsky had violated Article 282 of the Criminal Code on nine occasions, Article 148 on seven occasions, and Article 138.1 on one occasion.
The Court’s decision was largely based on an expert analysis of Mr. Sokolovsky’s videos for signs of extremism. According to the Court:
“All videos denied the existence of God. Mr. Sokolovsky’s videos used socio-psychological techniques to shock the public and incite protests. In all of the videos, only Mr. Sokolovky’s perspective was presented. These facts indicate manipulation. Religious believers in Mr. Sokolovsky’s videos are portrayed as sick and foolish. Information incites hatred towards Christians and Muslims. He rudely described people on the basis of his denial of the existence of Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed … thus he committed a crime under Article 148.1 of the Criminal Code. Additionally, Patriarch Kirill [the head of the Russian Orthodox Church] was the subject of derogatory comments, and was judged in personal capacities and as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church. He formed a belief that Russia is full of obscurantism and despotism. Mr. Sokolovsky made statements that he wanted to move abroad and that there is a better government regime there.”
The Court took into account the fact that Mr. Sokolovsky had no prior convictions, and thus issued a suspended sentence. He was sentenced to a suspended term of three and a half years and banned from participating in public events. The Court also ordered the nine videos to be removed from the internet.
Mr. Sokolovsky appealed the decision. In July 2017, the Sverdlovsk District Court reviewed the appeal. It overturned the conviction brought under article 138.1 (illegal sale of special technical resources used for secret surveillance), but upheld the conviction of incitement to hatred and offense of religious feelings. The Court also reduced the three and a half years suspended imprisonment sentence to two years and three months.
On December 12, 2017, Mr. Sokolovsky filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Russia. He argued that his actions did not meet the mens rea of the crimes of incitement to hatred and insult and that the lower instance court relied on questionable testimonies in making its ruling.
On February 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of Russian rejected Mr. Skolovsky’s appeal. The Supreme Court explained that it did not find that the lower instance courts committed material or procedural violations to warrant an appeal.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case contracts freedom of expression and, in doing so, violates a range of internationally accepted freedom of expression norms and principles. First, the Court sentenced Mr. Sokolovsky for displaying a lack of respect for a religion or other belief system. Such an offence is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression unless it constitutes hate speech (General Comment 34, par. 48). In this case, Mr. Sokolovsky denies he intended to incite hatred or discrimination against individuals based on their religious beliefs and there is no evidence that his speech had such an effect. Second, the court seems to have penalized Mr. Sokolovsky on the basis of insulting a public figure (Patriarch Kirill) and the State, both of which are unacceptable limitations on speech (General Comment 34, par. 38). Third, Mr. Sokolovsky’s statements, even if considered offensive, could be classified as political speech which enjoys one of the highest protections (General Comment 34, par. 34). Lastly, although Mr. Sokolovsky was not imprisoned, his suspended sentence will likely have a marked chilling effect on satirical expression.
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