Russia: Duma Deputy Wants Criminal Liability for Extremist Tweets

Yesterday, on May 14, Aleksandr Khinshtein [en], a Duma deputy and member of United Russia (‘the party of power’), wrote a letter to Yuri Chaika [en], the Prosecutor General of Russia. In that letter, Khinshtein noted the “recent sharp rise in the number of calls for acts of violence against state officials and police officers” appearing in online social networks. Twitter and Facebook, he argued, “have effectively transformed into an instrument to coordinate the actions of extremists, becoming a channel for the dissemination of detailed instructions to their supporters.” The letter begins [ru]:

Прошу Вас принять меры к владельцам и пользователи аккаунтов в различных социальных интернет-сетях (русскоязычные сегменты Twitter и Facebook), активно содействовавшим в организации массовых беспорядков 6 мая 2012 года в г. Москве.

I ask you to take measures against the owners and users of accounts on various online social networks ([such as] the Russian language segments of Twitter and Facebook), who actively administered the organization of mass unrest on May 6, 2012, in Moscow.

Khinshtein added that bloggers are also using these services to advocate violence against “the legally elected President” and Russia's “constitutional order.” (Twitter user Lucius Aevus, for instance, wrote [ru] on April 24, “Buy weapons, stockpile food, join up, and kill Putin.”) Khinshtein called specifically for (1) the prevention of the further spread of such illegal, extremist online appeals, (2) the criminal prosecution of individuals who use social networks to disseminate extremism, and (3) any other measures legally necessary.

Screenshot of Khinshtein's official Duma webpage, 15 May 2012.

Hours after news of this petition caused a stir in the media, Khinshtein responded by publishing the full text of his letter to Chaika, claiming [ru] that his initiative is not a plea for political censorship. Khinshtein did not, however, publish the supplementary materials he attached to the letter, where he cataloged dozens of examples of bloggers advocating illegal activity. The list, to which online newspaper has access and has graciously summarized [ru], focuses on nationalist and liberal democratic oppositionists — some anonymous and others well-known.

First on the list is self-described “ultra-right” anonymous blogger odinzavseh (“one for all”), whom Khinshtein links to soccer hooligans, like the ones infamous for inciting a small ethnic riot in Moscow in December 2010. On Twitter, odinzavseh has called on protesters to beat up Putin-supporters and public figures Sergei Minaev and Konstantin Rykov. He also allegedly encouraged oppositionists to attack government buildings with Molotov cocktails on the night of May 8. Both these tweets were later deleted, though evidence of the former can still be found [ru] on Yandex. In what seems particularly outrageous to many bloggers, Khinshtein has claimed, as well, that retweeting (reposting another user's message) also carries criminal liability. Odinzavseh, for instance, retweeted user LailaMooore's call [ru] on protesters to slash the tires of police vans and bring weapons to protests.

Not one to exclude Russia's homegrown social networks, Khinshtein also cited “The Moscow Front,” a nationalist group based [ru] on VKontakte that advocated attacks on government buildings near Chistye Prudy on May 7. As soon as these allegations went public, the group published its thanks to Khinshtein for the “free publicity.” Several members immediately posted anti-Semitic comments, complaining, for example [ru], “You know, Khinshtein's Jewish snout pisses me off.”

Also gracing the list is Mikhail Svetov, Twitter user msvetov, a Russian student living in Japan, who has been an active virtual participant in the opposition protests. During the May 6 “Million Man March” at Bolonatia Square, Svetov tweeted:

Не выбрасывайте омоновские шлемы в реку, надевайте их на себя. Это броня, она вас защитит от полицейских дубинок.

Don't throw the police helmets into the river: wear them yourselves. They're armor, and will protect you from their nightsticks.


Отнимайте у ОМОНа щиты, каски, дубинки, это уравнивает ваши шансы. Не нападайте на них, но отнимайте амуницию.

Take away the police's shields, helmets, nightsticks — this evens your chances. Don't attack them, but take away their ammunition.

Khinshtein also accused oppositionists Vitaly Shushkevich and Artem Chapaev of online extremism. On May 7, Chapaev tweeted:

Думаю, частью стратегии должна стать дальнейшая радикализация масс, чтобы перейти к тактике ощутимой городской герильи.

I think that further radicalization of the masses should become a part [of the opposition], in order to transition to urban guerilla tactics.

That same day, Shushkevich used his Twitter account to encourage [ru] protesters to bring coins to Chistye Prudy and throw them at police and “Nashists” (members of the pro-Kremlin youth). He also reposted several unsavory messages from Twitter users gruppa_voina, ponny1, papumaria, and moskless, including calls to spread the fear that “Moscow is out of control.”

The always irreverent artist collective Gruppa Voina [en] responded in typical fashion, quipping [ru] that its followers would soon be confronted by Khinshtein himself:

Друзья, вы все шутки шутите – но не забывайте – за КАЖДЫЙ РЕТВИТ с вас спросит @khinshtein в комнате допросов ближайшей к вашему дому тюрьмы

Friends, you're all having a laugh, but don't forget that for EVERY RETWEET Khinshtein will question you in the interrogation room of the prison nearest to your home.

Petr Verzilov, husband of Pussy Riot's imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and a Voina member, sarcastically welcomed [ru] Khinshtein's efforts, saying that criminalizing retweets could become the “next step in the development of civil society and legal consciousness in our country.”

Aleksei Navalny is also on Khinshtein's list — included for a May 3 tweet [ru] that joked about burning down the Mayor's office. Navalny quoted the text of a Sergei Udaltsov tweet, altering the final line into a mock appeal for arson:

Чиновники из мэрии вышли на связь, обещают в течение часа согласовать марш. Если обманут – сожжем мэрию.

Officials from the Mayor's office have been in contact. They promise to approve the [May 6] march within an hour. If they're lying, we'll burn down city hall.

In reality, Udaltsov had written [ru]: “If they're lying, we'll make an announcement through the orgkomitet.”

Some RuNet voices have insisted that Khinshtein is asking the Prosecutor General to do something fundamentally beyond its legal authority, and is only causing a stir to grab a moment's publicity. In a series of identical tweets addressed to prominent RuNet bloggers, Yuri Suetin posted the scan [ru] of a letter from May 2011, where the FSB informs a certain Dmitri Goriugin that Russian law enforcement agencies are incapable of deleting or banning posts from Twitter. (Goriugin had apparently complained about personal insults directed at him, published online by pro-Kremlin blogger fritzmorgen — an account that ironically Twitter has since suspended.) Other users, however, were quick to point out that Khinshtein is citing anti-extremism laws that carry far more extensive police powers than Criminal Code 130 (to which Goriugin appealed).

Russian politician, Yuri Chaika, 8 December 2009, photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Khinshtein's appeal to Chaika coincides with a draft project [ru] introduced to the Duma yesterday by United Russia deputies. The project denounces protesters who attacked police at Bolotnaia Square on May 6, and advocates criminal prosecution of those “responsible.”

The state's response to Khinshtein's letter will be an interesting test of the lengths to which the Kremlin is prepared to pressure oppositionists in their use of online social media. Services like Twitter and Facebook are widely credited with energizing the protest movement — indeed, the feasibility of recent mass demonstrations seems to have required these instruments. Likewise, heightened public scrutiny on the extremist content of oppositionists’ blog posts and tweets will test the maturity and accountability of a space that until now has hosted language often violent and legally dubious according to Russian legislation.


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