Content Regulation / Censorship, Religious Expression
Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria
On Appeal Mixed Outcome
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
The book “Prayers (Dua) to God: its purpose and place in Islam” contained Quranic verses and meaning. The prosecutor of Southern-Sakhalin requested the book be labeled as extremist and banned for being in violation of Russia’s Federal Law 114-FZ on Countering Extremism. The first instance court in Southern-Sakhalin, on the basis of an expert review, ruled that the book propagated superiority of Islam and was thus extremist. On appeal, the Regional Court of Southern-Sakhalin repealed the lower court’s decision.
Some of the information in this report was derived from secondary sources.
Global FoE could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. Global FoE notes that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding legal matters will be updated as an official source becomes available.
The prosecutor of Southern-Sakhalin requested the court to ban the book “Prayers (Dua) to God: its Purpose and Place in Islam” on the basis of it containing extremist speech. The prosecutor identified the book during a joint review of a regional religious organization, “Sakhalin’s Muslim Community,” with the Ministry of Justice and the State Security Services. The book listed translations of common Quranic prayers. The prosecutor suspected the book to contain extremist speech and submitted it for an expert linguistic assessment.
The charges of extremism were brought under the 2002 Federal Law 114-FZ on Countering Extremism, prohibiting extremist materials and their dissemination.
The assessment of the book focused solely on the translated Quranic verses rather than the commentary (such focus suggests that parts of the Quran were on trial for extremism). The assessment concluded that the book contained statements of the superiority of Muslims. Specifically, the expert linguistic analysis of the Quranic verses in the book determined that they promulgated the notions that Allah is the only true god while followers of other religions follow false gods, and that Muslims are superior to other believers as others follow false gods. One of the Surahs on the basis of which the prosecution brought its claim is the Surah Al-Fatiha , which is in the first chapter of Quran and with which Muslims begin their prayers:
 “You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help. Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received your grace; not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.”
The decision to ban the book caused much controversy and was appealed by the Prosecutor General of Southern-Sakhalin, Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic, the Association of Muslim Businessmen, and the Sakhalin Muslim Association.
The Prosecutor General argued the decision of the lower court was too broad, and that it requested to declare extremist only the parts of the book that were opinions of the author, rather than the whole book, which included Quranic verses.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s lawyers requested that the ban on the book to be lifted all together, arguing that the linguistic expert review was improper and that the ban had potential to incite violence.
First, the Southern-Sakhalin court explained that the Russian Constitution establishes equality of rights for all citizens, highlights that multiplicity of ideology is one of its foundations, and guarantees the right of conscience and belief. At the same time, the constitution prohibits all forms of limitations on the rights of citizens on the basis of social status, race, nationality, language or religion. The court also cited a judgment of the Supreme Court of Russia from July 2, 2013, stating that although the constitution guarantees certain rights – including those to opinion and information – speech advocating hatred on religious, national, or racial grounds is prohibited.
The court defined extremist materials as documents or information that call upon its readers to undertake extremist acts, or justifies or substantiates the need for extremist acts. Extremism or extremist acts include:
After explaining the applicable law, the court reviewed the prosecution’s expert assessment of the book “Prayers (Dua) to God: its purpose and place in Islam” and its conclusion that the book contains extremist speech. The conclusions were confirmed during the court’s examination of the prosecution’s expert witness. The court also took into consideration the expert’s note that the book does not explicitly justify or support extremism, BUT, it contains features that are generally associated with persons of extremist values.
The court tested the prosecution expert’s conclusions of the book by initiating its own linguistic-psychological review by a linguist and professor of Russian language. The court’s expert concluded that the book contains statements that promulgate the superiority of one group over another, and that although the book does not contain explicit calls or justification for extremism, it contains features specific to extremism. These features were described by the expert to include extremist thought process and convictions.
The court ruled that, noting the high qualifications of experts reviewing the book, it had no reason to deny their findings.
The court also explained that the side opposing the prosecutor’s request to label the book as extremist had the right to provide evidence to the contrary. However, the only evidence was a statement by an imam of the “Sakhalin’s Muslim Community” who explained that the book aimed to educate Muslims on how to better articulate prayers to Allah. The court explained that the imam’s statement could not be accepted, as he was a member of the organization from which the book was confiscated, and thus, provided a biased assessment of the book.
The court concluded that, on the basis of the qualified expert testimony, the book contained indirect statements of incitement to unlawful and extremist activities dangerous to the public. The danger stems from the statements’ potential to create a positive outlook on extremism among some, which could lead to the creation of extremist values and beliefs, undermining Russia’s constitutional regime.
The decision was appealed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic, and by the Prosecutor General of Southern Sakhalin.
The Prosecutor General requested the appellate court to partially strike-down the decision of the lower court. The Prosecutor argued that it requested only the opinion and comment parts of the book to be declared extremist. Thus, the lower court acted beyond the Prosecutor’s intent when it banned the Quranic verses. The Prosecutor asked the court to lift the extremist label from the Quranic verses in the book, and requested permission to hold a new linguistic expert review of the opinion and comment parts of the book for signs of extremism.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s lawyers argued that no part of the book should be declared extremist; that additional linguistic review of the book was the prosecution’s attempt to delay the process since it already had over a year to conduct any needed review; that the linguistic review of the lower court was conducted by non-Muslims; and that declaring the book extremist had security risks. On the latter, the lawyers stated that declaring the book extremist might cause similar events as the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, possibly worse, since the caricatures only portrayed the Prophet Mohammed while the lower court declared Quran, and thus, the whole religion extremist.
The appellate court ruled that no part of the book should be declared extremist and dismissed the prosecution’s request for review of the book’s comments and opinion sections for sign of extremism.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision also portrays the dangers of content based analysis of speech. In this case, a verbatim interpretation of religious text, something that many States blame jihadists for doing, to prove existence of the superiority of one religion over another. Such interpretation rejects the common sense understanding that persons follow a particular religion because they feel that it is somehow truer or better, and by that logic all believers and religions would be extremist.
The higher court struck-down the decision, but it was likely solely due to the President of the Chechen Republic appealing it, as well as open criticism of the decision by Putin.
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.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.