Staunton, November 24 – In the overwhelming majority of cases, those Russians charged with non-violent extremist crimes like posting on the Internet or being members of organizations deemed extremist are not sentenced to jail but rather given suspended sentences, fines, or corrective labor, SOVA Center’s Aleksandr Verkhovsky says.
The relatively small share who are sent to prison or the camps are either those who have posted many articles, are linked to other crimes, or already are incarcerated. This last group includes those who have been convicted and are behind bars but nonetheless continue to post things on line (bbc.com/russian/russia/2015/11/151123_russia_extremism_sentence).
And the specialist on human rights says that this pattern is “good” because “expressions should be punished by the deprivation of freedom only in certain extreme cases.”
But since the start of 2015, he says, there has been a disturbing development: after remaining relatively stable the last several years, the number of people in prison or the camps for non-violent extremist offenses such as posting articles or joining banned groups has “approximately doubled.”
Verkhovsky says that he cannot say what this is connected with, but Soviet history suggests at least three possibilities, all of which are disturbing.
First, this upsurge may represent an effort by investigators, prosecutors and the courts to compile conviction and sentencing statistics that will put them in good stead with their political bosses.
Second, it may represent a decision by the political authorities to spread fear in the population that even if Russians do not commit an act of violence, they can face prison or the camps, a fear that will certainly restrain many from any actions of dissent.
Or third, and most ominously, it may be an indication that investigators, prosecutors and the courts, while acting in the general direction that the Kremlin wants, are acting in ways that go beyond what the center wanted, in much the same way that Victor Serge described in “The Case of Comrade Tulayev.”
If this upsurge in the number of people imprisoned is the result of the first, that means that officials are content to boost their statistics by the easy means of going online rather than by the more difficult ones involving real investigations into genuine extremism.
If it is the result of a decision by the Kremlin itself to spread fear, that suggests that either the central authorities are more worried than many now think or that they may be prepared to crack down even further in the coming weeks and months.
And if it is the third, then that suggests not only that the power vertical is anything but a tightly run organization but also that the Kremlin may soon announce show trials of some officials to try to convince Russians and the West that it is in fact better than a reasonable reading of these figures would suggest.