Extremism law continues to cause confusion in Russia

By April 29, 2011

Russia (MNN)
— Russia still has a Law on extremism, and these days, it's being used as a

controversial law has been on the books for nine years and is the target of
increasing criticism for its broadness. It defines as "extremist" any attempt to forcibly change the Russian
constitution, undermine the country's security, take over authority by force or
carry out terrorist activities.

With Russian
elections approaching, crackdowns are expected to intensify. There are
concerns that authorities will exploit
the law to persecute religious minorities, intimidate the media and clamp down
on opposition activists.

A recent case is adding to the confusion of how the law is
being read. Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says, "According to the Forum 18 News Service, a Jehovah's
Witness (Alexander Kalistratov)  was
charged under this anti-extremism legislation. His offense was giving away
two copies of a tract of some kind (banned by the city court), and he goes to
trial and ends up being acquitted."

It's great news…but he goes on to say that, "I think a lot
of human rights groups and religious rights groups are concerned about the
broader application of this law on extremism. Could we see it being applied to
evangelical Christians?"

The intent behind the law was to give the government power
to deal with Muslim extremists and groups like the Chechen terrorists,
Griffith explains. "They've had an awful
lot of problems with the Wahhabi form of Islam, with terrorists blowing things
up and attacking schools and the like. It's just been a really serious

However, in recent years, it seems like it was being applied
beyond that scope, as it seemed in the 
Kalistratov case. According to
Forum 18, although he was acquitted on the grounds that a crime had not been
committed, he was charged under the law. His lawyer, as reported by Forum 18, stated
the prosecution "serves as a clear example of the illegal application of
the federal law on Combating Extremist Activity."

The question becomes two-fold: (1) what is a consistent interpretation of the
law, and (2) does this acquittal have any legal precedent impact on other cases?    

No one has any answers to these questions right now, and the
uncertainty is nerve wracking. Ministries
like SGA are moving carefully. Griffith
says the only recourse right now is to "pray that the Gospel will not be
hindered. Pray for churches that they would be protected from being lumped in
with these kinds of extremists." Pray,
too, for a fair interpretation of the law that can both define a true extremist
group correctly and be applied fairly.

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