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Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets

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Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets


MOSCOW — Over the last week, a well-known writer and a Jehovah’s Witness in Siberia have become two more Russians to fall foul of a murky and much-criticized law purported to fight terrorism but being turned against a broad and seemingly random array of people.

Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known as Boris Akunin, the writer of best-selling historical mysteries, revealed in his blog that a federal investigative body subordinate to the Kremlin had summoned his publisher for questioning about possible extremist statements in his latest book, “All the World’s a Stage.”

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation said it had been alerted that Mr. Chkhartishvili’s novel might be in violation of a law pushed through by the Kremlin in 2002, purportedly to fight terrorism, and amended in 2006. Rights activists say the law is so obscure that it can be applied at official whim to stifle perceived critics.

Making matters murkier, the summons, which Mr. Chkhartishvili posted on his blog (borisakunin.livejournal.com), said that the case was based on a complaint filed by a man identified as a Russian nationalist recently jailed for life for killing non-Slavs.

The Investigative Committee quickly concluded it had found no offending passages. Mr. Chkhartishvili, an expert on the literature and culture of Japan, noted wryly that he could only find one passage in his book possibly offensive to Russians, referring to their inability to distinguish between two sorts of Japanese noodles.

“It’s a bit funny that in our country, where there are enough real problems connected with extremism, serious people are engaged in such nonsense,” he told the RIA Novosti news agency.

On his blog, a commentator painted law enforcement as a “theater of the absurd.”

Religious groups that have encountered the law concur, but say that they are facing very real consequences.

On Thursday, a court in the Gorno-Altaisk region of Siberia found Aleksandr Kalistratov, a Jehovah’s Witness, guilty on charges of disseminating extremist materials. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Mr. Kalistratov had earlier been found innocent, but a higher court ordered a retrial.

“One gets the impression that the state can’t live without prisoners of conscience,” said Mikhail Odintsov, a religion expert at the office of Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman who defended Mr. Kalistratov.

Viktor Zhenkov, a defense lawyer for Mr. Kalistratov, said the law is so broad now “that any court can rule that any literature is extremist.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses were repressed, imprisoned and exiled in Soviet times, and their leaders in Russia say that there are now nearly a dozen criminal cases against members on charges of extremism across Russia.

Religious literature distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is on a list of extremist literature compiled by Russia’s Ministry of Justice, which serves as a basis for cases like the Kalistratov one.

Grigory Martynov, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that homes of believers have been raided and there were fears in Revyakino, a village in the Irkutsk region, after the local mayor twice burst into gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were first exiled there in the Soviet era. Most recently, Mr. Martynov said, the mayor shot at the ceiling of the home of a Jehovah’s Witness and held a gun to the head of the man’s son.

Mr. Martynov said he feared the authorities would not pay attention until the situation became deadly. He also showed this reporter a photocopy of what he said was a Russian police handbook from Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region, that described the local head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “likely in contact with the special services of the U.S.A.”

Roman Lunkin, a religion expert with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow, which has defended religious freedom cases for nearly two decades, said that Russia’s special services “see a fifth column” in such religions as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals. “They don’t see Russian citizens.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 4, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets.

Article Source: The New York Times


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