A lit­tle-known po­lice agency, Cen­ter E, is crack­ing down on dis­sent. A so­cial me­dia post could now land you in jail

Newsweek - - Contents - BY MARC BENNETTS @mar­cben­netts1

Rus­sia’s Cen­ter E Sup­presses So­cial Me­dia

it was just be­fore 6 a.m. when po­lice of­fi­cers raided Daniil Markin’s apart­ment in Bar­naul, a small Rus­sian city some 2,000 miles from Moscow. Markin, a film stu­dent who was 18 at the time of the July 2017 raid, had no idea why po­lice had burst into his home. The of­fi­cers, he says, were in no hurry to ex­plain. In­stead, they re­moved his com­put­ers, smart­phone and other elec­tronic devices, then drove him to the lo­cal branch of the Cen­ter for Com­bat­ing Ex­trem­ism, a po­lice depart­ment within Rus­sia’s pow­er­ful In­te­rior Min­istry.

Of­fi­cers from the so-called Cen­ter E then in­formed Markin that he was be­ing charged with hate speech against Chris­tians over a hand­ful of images that he had ei­ther re­posted or saved to his ac­count on Vkon­takte, Rus­sia’s ver­sion of Face­book, which is also known as VK. The ear­li­est dated from 2013, when he was just 13. Markin did not cre­ate any of the images, most of which had al­ready been widely cir­cu­lated on­line, but he now faces up to five years in prison over the charges, if found guilty.

The on­line memes that landed Markin in le­gal trou­ble may have been of­fen­sive to some Chris­tians, but Alexan­der Yere­menko, his lawyer, says there are no grounds on which to clas­sify them as hate speech. One fea­tured Jon Snow, a char­ac­ter from Game of Thrones, with a halo and the words “Jon Snow is risen! Truly he is risen!” The cap­tion, a ref­er­ence to Snow’s mag­i­cal res­ur­rec­tion in the pop­u­lar HBO se­ries, was a par­ody of the words that Rus­sian Ortho­dox Chris­tians tra­di­tion­ally use to greet each other at Easter. An­other de­picted three an­gels smok­ing mar­i­juana from a bong. In­ves­ti­ga­tors, Markin says, laughed at the pic­tures as they scrolled through his Vkon­takte ac­count.

“To say I was shocked when they told me what I was be­ing charged with would be putting it mildly,” says Markin, whose on­go­ing trial be­gan in June. On top of the crim­i­nal charges, the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has added him to its list of ex­trem­ists and ter­ror­ists, which in­cludes neo-nazis and sup­port­ers of the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group (ISIS). The sta­tus means he is barred from us­ing a bank card. Other fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions, which ap­ply to everyone on the list, limit him to with­draw­ing a max­i­mum of 10,000 rubles ($150) from his bank ac­count a month. “I saved

a few images that no one even re­ally saw, and for that I have been in­cluded on a list that also in­cludes peo­ple who kill in Iraq and Syria,” he says.

The po­lice raid on Markin’s home came amid Rus­sia’s es­ca­lat­ing crack­down on so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity. Agora, a Rus­sian hu­man rights group, says law en­force­ment has opened 411 crim­i­nal cases against in­ter­net users in Rus­sia in 2017, com­pared with 298 cases in 2016. Forty-three peo­ple were given prison terms rang­ing from sev­eral months to just un­der four years. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the charges were for re­posts or sim­ply— as Markin did—sav­ing images to their per­sonal photo al­bums on so­cial me­dia ac­counts. Pros­e­cu­tions have in­volved satir­i­cal memes lam­poon­ing the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church, a key Krem­lin ally, as well as ones crit­i­ciz­ing Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary action in Ukraine.

Crit­ics say the pros­e­cu­tions are the lat­est step in a long-run­ning crack­down on free­dom of speech that be­gan in the early years of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s 18-year-rule, when ma­jor me­dia out­lets were forcibly brought un­der Krem­lin con­trol.

In an­other on­go­ing trial, Ed­uard Nik­itin, a 42-year-old un­em­ployed man from St. Peters­burg, is fac­ing five years be­hind bars af­ter po­lice ac­cused him of “in­cit­ing ha­tred” over a se­ries of po­lit­i­cally charged images and memes that he posted on Vkon­takte. One of the images was a satir­i­cal draw­ing that mocked Putin’s sup­port­ers as ig­no­rant and un­e­d­u­cated. And in early Septem­ber, Natalia Ko­val­eva, a 42-year-old woman from Sara­tov in cen­tral Rus­sia, was charged with ex­trem­ism af­ter she posted a se­ries of Rus­sian folk songs ac­cus­ing lo­cal courts of cor­rup­tion. Po­lice, who raided her home, say she is sus­pected of “be­smirch­ing the honor and dig­nity” of Sara­tov re­gion judges.

“I think they are try­ing to charge peo­ple…who go to protests, who sup­port [op­po­si­tion leader Alexei] Navalny,” Alexei Bush­makov, a lawyer who has de­fended sus­pects charged with ex­trem­ism, told Rus­sia’s web­site re­cently.

Formed in 2008, Cen­ter E has about 100 em­ploy­ees in Moscow, with sev­eral hun­dred more na­tion­wide. It wasn’t al­ways fo­cused on crack­ing down on on­line po­lit­i­cal dis­sent. Its of­fi­cers played a ma­jor role in break­ing up Rus­sia’s white power move­ment in the late 2000s, putting large num­bers of vi­o­lent ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists be­hind bars. “They jailed hun­dreds of these peo­ple,” says Alexan­der Verkhovsky, di­rec­tor of Moscow’s Sova Cen­ter, a hu­man rights non­profit that mon­i­tors ex­trem­ism. “And this was of­ten dan­ger­ous work—not like look­ing at Vkon­takte all day.”

Now, how­ever, Rus­sian op­po­si­tion ac­tivists have be­gun re­fer­ring to Cen­ter E of­fi­cers as okhranka—af­ter the name of a czarist-era se­cret po­lice force. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of charges are con­nected to posts on Vkon­takte rather than on West­ern so­cial net­works. Crit­ics say that’s be­cause the Rus­sian com­pany is too will­ing to hand over data on users to the au­thor­i­ties. Vkon­takte says it has no choice but to co­op­er­ate with po­lice, but, its par­ent com­pany, is call­ing for the re­post­ing of “ex­trem­ist” con­tent to be de­crim­i­nal­ized and for an amnesty for those al­ready con­victed. It has also pledged it will in­tro­duce an op­tion for Vkon­takte users to make con­tent to­tally pri­vate.

In the mean­time, the pros­e­cu­tions keep com­ing. Other grounds for ex­trem­ism charges have in­cluded memes or images that fea­ture Nazi sym­bols, re­gard­less of the con­text in which they were posted. Un­til four years ago, it was only an of­fense un­der Rus­sian law to post sym­bols of the Third Re­ich if the aim was to pro­mote Nazism. In 2014, how­ever, that caveat was re­moved from the law in a move to com­bat what Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties said were at­tempts to “re­ha­bil­i­tate Nazism,” open­ing the way to what crit­ics say are fre­quently ab­surd pros­e­cu­tions.

In one case, po­lice in cen­tral Rus­sia charged a man af­ter he “liked” a pro­mo­tional poster for the Hol­ly­wood movie Amer­i­can His­tory X, which con­tained a swastika. The movie, star­ring Ed­ward Nor­ton as a vi­o­lent skin­head who re­forms while in prison, has not been banned in Rus­sia and has even been shown on state television. In an­other case, a 16-year-old op­po­si­tion sup­porter in Vladi­vos­tok, in eastern Rus­sia, was pros­e­cuted af­ter sav­ing an im­age of a left-fac­ing swastika—the Bud­dhist sym­bol of light and peace— to his Vkon­takte photo al­bum. Both sus­pects were even­tu­ally or­dered to pay small fines, but crit­ics say the dis­rup­tion to the lives of those falsely charged can be sig­nif­i­cant.

“On pa­per, some of these laws against ex­trem­ism are good be­cause they are aimed at com­bat­ing racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion’” says Dmitry Dzhu­lai, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer who worked at Cen­ter E from 2014 through 2016. “But re­cently they are be­ing used against peo­ple that the au­thor­i­ties dis­ap­prove of—such as po­lit­i­cal

“Why are peo­ple go­ing to prison for memes while FRUUXSW RɽFLDOV re­ceive sus­pended sen­tences?”

ac­tivists and op­po­si­tion fig­ures.”

But Dzhu­lai and other for­mer Cen­ter E em­ploy­ees tell Newsweek that po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion isn’t the only rea­son for the in­creas­ing num­bers of in­ter­net users fac­ing ex­trem­ism charges. A ma­jor fac­tor, they say, is re­lent­less pres­sure from Cen­ter E’s bosses to meet ever-grow­ing ar­rest quo­tas. And po­lice chiefs aren’t too fussy about the meth­ods of­fi­cers use to meet tar­gets. (Cen­ter E did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.)

“Of­fi­cially, there is no quota sys­tem, but ev­ery year more crimes have to be un­cov­ered than in the pre­vi­ous year,” says Dzhu­lai, now a lawyer in Moscow. “The eas­i­est and sim­plest way to do this is to use a search en­gine to seek out memes and stupid things that peo­ple have writ­ten on VK.” Po­lice raids and crim­i­nal charges of­ten fol­low.

“These are just sta­tis­tics for the sake of sta­tis­tics,” says Vladimir Vorontsov, an­other for­mer Cen­ter E of­fi­cer, dur­ing an in­ter­view in Moscow. He notes that while Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties ini­tially drew up some anti-ex­trem­ist laws to clamp down on dis­sent, they are now of­ten be­ing ap­plied, al­most at ran­dom, by Cen­ter E em­ploy­ees des­per­ate to please their bosses.

“When I worked in Cen­ter E,” says Vorontsov, “peo­ple didn’t voice their opinions about the work. They just said, ‘Well, this is my job, so I’ll do what I’m told.’ Those em­ploy­ees who spend their time search­ing the in­ter­net don’t con­sider this shame­ful. They are more con­cerned with keep­ing their bosses happy and are ready to put other peo­ple’s lives and free­dom on the line for this.”

Cen­ter E of­fi­cers aren’t the only ones search­ing for sus­pected on­line ex­trem­ism. “There are many anony­mous com­plaints,” says Dzhu­lai. “Oth­ers are from peo­ple who have had an on­line ar­gu­ment with some­one and de­cided to get re­venge.” It’s a prac­tice, he says, that has echoes of the Soviet era, when rel­a­tives in­formed on rel­a­tives, and neigh­bors on neigh­bors, over “anti-com­mu­nist” ac­tiv­i­ties or com­ments.

Inevitably, the crack­down has caused Vkon­takte or­di­nary Rus­sians to think twice about what they post

on­line, es­pe­cially on Vkon­takte. “I try not to worry, but it’s al­ways in the back of my mind that I could face charges for some­thing I post or re­post,” says Ye­lena, a 33-year-old char­ity worker who asked that her sur­name not be pub­lished. And grow­ing con­cerns are lead­ing to ris­ing anger.

“Peo­ple see that they and their chil­dren can be­come vic­tims, that the laws are un­fair, and that the law en­force­ment agen­cies are us­ing these laws in their own in­ter­est,” says An­drey Pet­sev, an an­a­lyst at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter think tank. “Inevitably, a ques­tion arises: Why are peo­ple go­ing to prison for memes while cor­rupt of­fi­cials re­ceive sus­pended sen­tences? As more and more peo­ple pose it, the Krem­lin has only it­self to blame.”

Even Putin ap­pears to have con­cerns. Dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion in June, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent said that “those that are guilty must be called to ac­count” but warned that there was a dan­ger some Cen­ter E changes were be­ing pur­sued to “ab­sur­dity.” Then, on Oc­to­ber 3, Putin in­tro­duced pro­pos­als to par­lia­ment that would de­crim­i­nal­ize “ex­trem­ist” re­posts. If ap­proved, how­ever, the pres­i­dent’s amend­ments to the law would still al­low courts to jail in­ter­net users for up to 15 days over their so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity.

For now, Markin, the film stu­dent, is left fac­ing the sober­ing pos­si­bil­ity that he could spend his early 20s be­hind bars over an irreverent joke about a Game of Thrones char­ac­ter. “Rus­sia is slowly but surely killing me,” he says. “And the most im­por­tant thing is that this can hap­pen to ab­so­lutely any­one in Putin’s Rus­sia.”

SO­CIAL DIS­TOR­TION Or­di­nary Rus­sians are think­ing twice about what they post—or even re­post—on Vkon­takte, Rus­sia’s ver­sion of Face­book.

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