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The Police are not a Social Group

Source: HRO.org (info), 18/10/11

A joint statement by Memorial’s Anti-Discrimination Centre and the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis.


“In early October, the St. Petersburg branch of the National Investigative Committee dropped criminal charges against Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev. A year after bringing charges against the two members of the Voina performance art group, accused of overturning police cars as part of their action ‘Palace Revolution’ in September 2010, the investigation failed to establish that a crime had been committed under Article 213, Section 1 (paragraph b) of the Russian Federation Criminal Code.

The Investigative Committee concluded that Vorotnikov and Nikolaev cannot be brought to trial on charges of hooliganism motivated by hatred and enmity towards a social group, since ‘no definitive opinion currently exists as to whether the police can be deemed a specific social group’.

This decision, based on independent expert opinion and on precedent-setting rulings in the Russian courts, is highly significant in terms of law enforcement practice and the protection of civic activists from unlawful prosecution. The investigators were initially inclined in this case to interpret Article 213 (on hooliganism) in the context of anti-extremist legislation and to build the case against them based on a motive of hatred of a social group. However, a number of human rights activists and legal experts from the beginning questioned the appropriateness of this interpretation. Activists and experts of the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis have repeatedly criticized the charges against Vorotnikov and Nikolaev, pointing out that the absence of a clear definition of ‘social group’, both in terms of legislation and academic discourse, has frequently resulted in an arbitrary interpretation of this concept.

The spirit of the law envisages that it should be used only for the protection of particularly vulnerable groups rather than the protection of any group whatsoever. Nevertheless, the law has often been applied to protect precisely those groups that not only are not vulnerable but that enjoy additional protection (such as law enforcement officials already protected by special legislation). The use of anti-extremist legislation to protect a specific social group is justified only in certain cases, such as assaults against the homeless. The way this legal provision has been applied in most cases in practice has been highly controversial. It is has been used mostly to protect representatives of the state in general, or specific bureaucrats, military officers, and law enforcement officials.

Vorotnikov’s and Nikolayev’s defence was largely based on arguing against the notion of criminalization of ‘hatred of the police as a social group’.

Human rights activists have been drawing attention to the inappropriate application of this legal provision for several years now and their position has recently been confirmed by Decree No. 11 of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ‘On court practice in criminal cases relating to crimes of extremist orientation’, of 28 June 2011. The Supreme Court confirmed that the limits of acceptable criticism of officials must be broader than those relating to ordinary citizens.

In investigating the Voina case, the St. Petersburg Investigative Committee has sought legal advice from experts at the Hertzen Russian State Pedagogical University. Experts Valery Zarubin and Natalya Nemirova concluded that the police as a whole were not a social group: ‘Police officers do not constitute a social group that is large, real or nominal. At the time of the commission of the crime, the police officers in question, against whom the unlawful acts described in the materials of the criminal case were committed, did not constitute a small social group.’ The investigators were obliged to accept the arguments presented and to drop the notorious Voina case.

The position taken by the human rights community that anti-extremist legislation must not be used to persecute critics of the authorities has now prevailed. The practice of bringing charges of hatred of a social group, understood as an expression of dissatisfaction with certain representatives of the authorities, must be deemed unlawful. Nevertheless, a number of individuals have been convicted in similar cases (suffice it to mention the blogger Savva Terentyev, convicted of hatred of the police, or Irek Murtazin who has served a term of imprisonment for hostility towards the authorities in Tatarstan), and in Barnaul a group of people are currently being investigated who have done nothing more than use placards at a medical institute to protest against a number of politicians: they have been charged with hooliganism ‘motivated by hatred of official representatives’. All cases of this kind should be dropped or at least reclassified. The experience of the Voina case must be the last attempt to use the law on extremism against expressions of political discontent.”

Source: SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis
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Rights in Russia,
29 Oct 2011, 01:28
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