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In Chelyabinsk, experts once again claim officials constitute a social group


26 August 2011

© Photo Open Information Agency.

Despite the position taken by the Plenum of the Supreme Court of Russia, and numerous decisions of regional courts and investigators, experts of Chelyabinsk State University have stated that representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office, the courts, the police, civil servants and deputies of the State Duma are members of a distinct social group.

On this basis, texts posted on the Internet by local civic activist Andrei Ermolenko were found to contain “expressions intent to incite hatred and also to humiliate groups of people on the basis of their membership of a social group,” Open Information Agency correspondent reports. In line with Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Ermolenko faces up to two years in prison. The interests of the Chelyabinsk activist are represented by Agora Human Rights Association.

Andrei Ermolenko published materials on the Internet denouncing officials and law enforcement officers: “We Declare War on You!” and “No to Political Impotence”. After this, the activist’s apartment was searched and a computer, laptop and personal belongings were taken away. A criminal case was opened against him.

In June 2011 the Plenum of the Supreme Court discussed a draft ruling on the practice of deciding extremism cases. The judges of the Supreme Court pointed out that the legislation on combating extremism must not be used to protect officials, and that criticism of the authorities is not only permissible, it is also necessary. Nonetheless, the head of the department of sociology at Chelyabinsk State University, Aleksandr Taradanov considered otherwise. (Aleksandr Taradanov has PhDs in sociology and philosophy, is an associate professor and a member of the dissertations council for philosophy).

According to the evidence of the expert assessment conducted at the request of the Chelyabinsk region Investigative Committee, Taradanov concluded: “Representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office, the courts, the police, civil servants, and deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation belong to a social group based on the fact that they all fulfil the socially necessary function of ‘state administration’”. The expert pointed out that “the social group in question is characterized by special characteristics and social qualities, including a high level of education, discipline and the ability to work with documents.”

The head of the psychology faculty of Chelyabinsk State University, Diana Tsiring (an assistant professor with a PhD in psychology who has taught at university for 16 years) in the same assessment undertaken for the Ermolenko case concluded that the text “We Declare War on You” “contains public statements intended to incite hatred, and also to humiliate individuals and groups on the basis of their belonging to a particular social group.”

“Hatred towards representatives of the justice system and the Prosecutor’s Office is incited by linguistic and psychological means,” the expert Diana Tsiring writes in her conclusion, in part referring to the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. “Actions are ascribed to the given social groups that are perceived by the readers as unlawful, unjust and immoral, in other words the reader receives a strongly negative emotional impulse towards the social groups of the staff of the court service and Prosecutors’ Offices. Humiliation is achieved through undermining respect to the given social groups. Humiliation is expressed by means of malicious fabrications and perverted evidence about court cases, discrediting and offending the social group.”

Expert Diana Tsiring uses identical formulations in her analysis of Andrei Ermolenko’ second text: “No to Political Impotence.” This time the question at issue is, in her words, “incitement of hatred towards representatives of the court system, Prosecutor’s Offices and law enforcement agencies.” And distinct from the first material, the second, according to the expert, “contains indirect calls to hostile and violent actions towards the representatives of the court service.”

For example, the experts did not like Ermolenko’s phrases “gangs of thieves in the justice system”, “bandits in epaulettes”, “gangs of prosecutors and judges”, “partners in crime and fascist-style bosses”, “criminal orders”, “acting lawlessly.”

Earlier experts from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Nizhny Novgorod State University refused to recognize officials and law enforcement officers as a social group. For example, Konstantin Belousov, a PhD in sociology and an expert in the sociology of deviance, and Yakov Kostiukovsky, acting head of department at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an expert in the sociology of deviance and social control, concluded: “Contemporary Russian social science and humanities in general, and sociology in particular, have not at present developed a generally accepted approach to use of the term ‘social group’...It is inadmissible to say that police officers constitute a distinct social group only on the basis of a single characteristic – the profession to which they belong...The categorization of police officers as a distinct social group can lead to the formation among Russians today of the view that police officers have specific rights ensuring them conditions of life that are better that those of other Russian citizens, something which is fraught with a rise in social tensions.”

It is interesting that Andrei Ermolenko had to go to court to obtain access to the results of the forensic expertise. The Investigative Committee refused to give the activist a copy of the experts’ conclusions. After Ermolenko submitted a complaint to the court over the Investigative Committee’s unlawful actions, the latter changed its stance. Ermolenko has since been permitted to make copies of the relevant documents. He and his lawyer have now been able to read the experts’ conclusions in all their detail.

“After reading the experts’ conclusions we became further convinced that in Russia there are in fact a whole group of ‘official’ experts who, jointly with the police and the Investigative Committee, are propagating the idea that officials constitute a distinct social group and criticism of members of this group constitutes extremism,” Ramil Akhmetgaliev, lawyer and legal analyst with Agora, said.

However, Russian practice in applying the law is based as before on the principle that representatives of official bodies do not in themselves constitute a social group, while the principle of the uniformity of application and interpretation of the law is enshrined in legislation. This means that the laws must be applied in the same way throughout the territory of the country and cannot be interpreted in different ways in one or other regions of Russia.

Thus, in a case similar to that of Ermolenko, on 31 December 2009 charges were dropped against Dmitry Solovev, a blogger from Kemerovo region. He had been charged with placing materials on the Internet allegedly intended to incite hatred towards the social groups of “police officers” and “FSB officers” (Article 282 Section 1 of the Criminal Code of Russia). The experts failed to give an unambiguous confirmation to the view that police and FSB officers could be considered as social groups.

On 1 November 2010 Sverdlovsk district court in Kostroma acquitted Roman Zamuraev who had also been charged with posting statements on the Internet describing “hostile and violent actions in relation to the President of the Russian Federation and members of the Council of the Federation, in other words towards a distinct social group of people, namely, representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government.” The court in its ruling said that “a social group presupposes the existence of an internal organization, shared goals of activity, forms of social control, a certain degree of cohesion, community of interests, and so on.” Representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government could not be considered to be social groups since they do not correspond to the criteria listed, and therefore in the actions of Zamuraev there was no case to answer.

On 21 February 2011 Ryazan’s Zheleznodorozhny court ruled that a caution, issued by the Federal Agency on the Press and Mass Communications to the Vechernyaya Ryazan newspaper in November 2010 for extremism on the grounds that a publication allegedly incited hatred against a social group of “police officers” was unlawful. The court ruled that law enforcement officers do not constitute a social group.

On 11 November 2010 Kirov district court in the city of Ekaterinburg dismissed a prosecutor’s request to find literature it had confiscated extremist. The court supported the conclusions of the expert who said that “public authorities have no specific characteristics, in terms of their relations with the public, except the fact that they are endowed with public authority, that would make it possible to characterize them as belonging to one or another social group. Therefore incitement to commit hostile or unlawful actions on the basis of non-existent characteristics logically is not possible.” Referring to the Constitution of Russia, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the court dismissed the prosecutor’s request to find the materials extremist.

The assessments by the experts Aleksandr Taradanov and Diana Tsiring can be read here.