#10 - JRL 2009-155 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
August 21, 2009
Winnie the Pooh Debuts on Extremism List
By Nabi Abdullaev / The Moscow Times

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Winnie the Pooh share a dubious honor: Anyone who depicts either of them with a swastika can be punished under the law.

The Justice Ministry published the latest ­ and biggest ­ update to its list of extremist materials on its web site this week, and many of the 414 new entries are so vague or controversial that analysts say they threaten to discredit the list all together.

The list is important because police officers and other law enforcement officials use it in street checks, apartment searches and criminal cases.

Among the new entries, extremist material is identified as “a picture of Winnie the Pooh wearing a swastika,” “a self-made template for a future newspaper, comic or other print materials,” and “a flag with a cross.”

The flag entry theoretically makes it an offense to produce or distribute Georgian or Swiss flags and Russian Orthodox banners, all of which have crosses on them.

Even the possession of these materials in mass quantities ­ and it is up to a court is to decide how many items comprise a “mass” in each individual case ­ carries the threat of punishment.

A Justice Ministry spokeswoman said Thursday that the ministry has no authority to modify or in any other way change the list, which is based on court decisions defining extremist materials.

If caught with extremist material, a private individual faces a fine of up to 3,000 rubles ($95) and up to 15 days in jail, while a legal entity could be fined up to 100,000 rubles ($3,150) and closed for up to 90 days. No criminal charges would apply.

But if a person is under investigation for another crime, the possession of extremist materials can and often is used to add extremism charges to the case, thus stiffening the punishment. For example, beating a Tajik citizen would be classified as simple assault unless the police found extremist materials in the attacker’s home. Then the case could be classified as assault with the motive of ethnic hatred, which entails a stricter punishment.

Dozens of the new entries from the Justice Ministry’s list were defined by the Ordzhonikidzevsky District Court in Bashkortostan’s capital, Ufa, last December.

The acting chairman of the court, Ramil Karipov, told The Moscow Times on Thursday that its contribution was based on materials collected at the home of an Ufa resident sentenced on extremist charges in 2006. “Prosecutors came to us with the list and an expert’s conclusion that these items are extremist. So, we decided that they are extremist,” he said by telephone from Ufa.

The list included the flags with crosses, Winnie the Pooh and “two sheets of A4 white paper with the picture of a swastika and the words ‘White Fist National-Socialist Newspaper.’”

Karipov could not say whether his court had critically studied the list and the expert’s opinion before making the rule, and he directed all other queries to Ordzhonikidzevsky district prosecutors. No one picked up the phone Thursday at the district prosecutor’s office or the press office of Ufa’s chief prosecutor.

An official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the Justice Ministry had twice ordered Ordzhonikidzevsky district prosecutors to ask the local court for more precise definitions on extremist materials, but both letters were ignored.

“The thing is, most provincial courts have no idea that their rulings made in individual extremist cases will have an impact on the whole country,” said Galina Kozhevnikova, an analyst with Sova, a watchdog that tracks extremism in Russia.

The law on extremism, which stipulated the creation of the list of extremist materials as a tool to fight extremist propaganda, was adopted in 2002, but the first entries onto the list appeared only in 2007.

Kozhevnikova said she had witnessed policemen with the list in hand as they approached activists distributing leaflets, newspapers and books during nationalist gatherings in Moscow. The officers compared the activists’ materials against the list’s entries. “It was clear and rational at the very beginning,” Kozhevnikova said of the list. “Then came an avalanche of decisions from the regional courts, and the whole idea of the list as of a tool for law enforcement officials turned into a mess.”

She called the latest addition the “apotheosis of absurd” and said it would make it impossible to use the list in practice and only encourage abuses by law enforcement officials interested in beefing up their extremism crime solving statistics by cracking down on the innocent. “The worst thing is that no one is moving to create mechanisms to repair the system,” she said.

Appealing to courts to remove certain items would be a way to clean up the list, said Natalya Kryukova, deputy head of the Russian Institute for Cultural Research, which examines cultural materials for possible antisocial content.

“This would stimulate the courts and experts to be more critical when they consider which materials will be declared extremist,” she said.

This, however, would be a slow process given the lack of developed civil consciousness among Russians who lived several generations under totalitarianism, she said.

Kozhevnikova expressed doubt that court appeals would work, noting that the law on extremism provides no procedure for a removal even with a court decision.

She said she knows at least five instances when courts have ruled that items on the list were not extremist. But the list has not been changed.

Kozhevnikova said the Justice Ministry could ask the Supreme Court to order judges to stick to stricter standards when defining materials as extremist.

A closer look at the list brings other surprises. For example, item No. 402 is the LiveJournal blog Reinform.livejournal.com.

The blog has not been suspended by LiveJournal’s abuse team and is being updated almost daily. Its owner wrote on its front page that he had opened the blog after seeing prosecutors mistakenly name the then-nonexistent blog as extremist.

A puzzling entry on the list reads “Text document ‘Putin’ in folder ‘Decrees’ in folder ‘Declaration CDR disk No. 2,’” which was named extremist by the Akhtubinsk City Court in the Astrakhan region.

There are also dozens of documents related to Islamic studies on the list. Russian Muslim religious leaders have repeatedly called for some of them to be removed, but to no avail.

The appearance of Winnie the Pooh on the list this week is not surprising given his popularity, Kryukova said. Jokes about the honey-obsessed bear are plentiful and have entered modern Russian folklore after Winnie the Pooh made his Russian debut in a well-known Soviet cartoon.

A picture depicting Putin in a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband was published in 2007 by the Saratovsky Reporter newspaper, and resulted in a criminal case against its editor for insulting a state official and another case in which the government sought to close the newspaper for extremism. Courts threw out both cases.

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