A court in Russia has sentenced Alexei Kungurov, a 38-year-old blogger from Tyumen, Western Siberia, to two-and-a-half years in prison for “justification of terrorism.” His crime? A blog post he wrote in October 2015, after Russian warplanes conducted their first airstrikes in Syria.
In the post, Kungurov offered his analysis of the Syria conflict and vehemently criticized Russia’s intervention. In the opening paragraph, he wrote that the post set out to “debunk” several “myths” created by “Putin’s regime” and delivered to the public through “zombie-boxes” by pro-Kremlin media. He strongly disagreed with the official argument that Russia’s involvement in Syria was preventive and aimed at fighting terrorists to stop them from eventually coming to Russia. Rather than fighting terrorists in Syria, Kungurov argued, Russia was “helping them.”
During pretrial investigation, the regional department of the Federal Security Service (FSB) sent requests to journalists and media outlets in Tyumen asking for information on any other “defamatory” or “extremist” materials published by Kungurov. This fall, his family received anonymous threats and his LiveJournal account was hacked. At Kungurov’s trial, the prosecution failed to adequately explain which specific phrases or expressions were “justifying” terrorism.
Under Russian law, the maximum punishment for this offense is five years in prison, but the court took into consideration that Kungurov has two small children and no criminal record.
One can agree or disagree with Kungurov’s opinion. His post, however, contains no calls for violence but is a criticism of Russia’s Syria policy. It is a case of officials attempting to shut down public debate on an important foreign policy issue under the pretext of “combating terrorism.” It is also part and parcel of Russia’s ongoing crackdown on free speech, especially online.
Persecution of the Kremlin’s critics, accompanied by a barrage of repressive and discriminatory laws, has intensified considerably in recent years. The speed and viciousness of the government’s assault on internet freedom has left a growing number of Russians slapped with prison sentences for posting or even re-posting content on social networks. Today, many Russians are unsure about what is acceptable speech and what could land them in jail. This is the reality – no longer new but no less disturbing.