Rather than directing their efforts to combat extremism toward activities that genuinely deserve the label, Russian authorities seem to be using anti-extremism legislation in what is increasingly looking like a witch hunt. Already this year, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia on the grounds they are an extremist organization, and another court convicted a 22-year-old blogger on extremism charges for posting a prank video making fun of the Russian Orthodox Church.
This morning, in the latest example of Russia’s misuse of its vague anti-extremism legislation, a district court in Moscow found Natalia Sharina, the director of the Moscow Library of Ukrainian Literature, guilty of “inciting hatred,” an extremist crime, and handed down a four-year suspended sentence.
The librarian’s lawyer, who will appeal the verdict, called the trial against Sharina “a joke” with a clearly predetermined outcome. “The judge behaved like an ostrich, hiding her head in the sand, ignoring all legal arguments and evidence we presented,” he said.
The trial left little doubt that the authorities targeted Sharina for running a Ukrainian library at a time when Russian-Ukrainian relations are in dire straits.
Authorities arrested Sharina in October 2015, after they searched her apartment and the library, seizing books, brochures, and two CDs. Sharina was charged with “inciting hatred” toward Russian people through “providing public access to extremist literature” in the library. In April 2016, the authorities added charges of embezzlement. Sharina was found guilty of all charges. For one year and seven months, throughout the investigation and the trial, Sharina, 59, was under house arrest.
At the trial, the prosecution read aloud a list of Ukrainian publications apparently from the library that are either banned in Russia or could be perceived as “degrading” to the Russian people – including several volumes of Ukrainian poetry. Sharina argued that only one of the items listed by the prosecution was in fact accessible to readers – a Ukrainian-language children’s magazine, Barvinok.
According to Sharina’s lawyer, the court completely ignored the evidence, including witness accounts, that some of those “extremist” publications had been planted during and even after the search of the library.
By prosecuting Sharina for extremism, Russian authorities possibly aimed to intimidate the critics of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its role in the eastern Ukraine war. Regardless of the context, a librarian should not be prosecuted over the content of library materials. It has everything to do with censoring freedom of expression – and nothing to do with combating extremism.