Prosecutors Tough on Flag Violations

MTSPS activists carrying a large Russian flag near the White House on Tuesday.
Desecrating a national flag is an offense in most countries. In Russia, it is also an offense if you forget to display the flag during national holidays or dare to display it for no good reason.

Under the Criminal Code, a person faces up to one year in prison if found guilty of desecrating the tricolor, which dates back to Peter the Great and was reestablished as the national flag on Aug. 22, 1991.

But prosecutors are showing a willingness to go to great lengths to protect the integrity of the flag -- even when the violation warrants a punishment of little more than a slap on the wrist.

Regional prosecutors opened an investigation in 2002 after finding that the measurements of the flag flying at a district administration office in the Marii-El republic did not comply with the law. By law, the ratio of the flag's width to its length must be 2:3. The incident triggered checkups across the region and later across the nation. In Marii-El alone, prosecutors found 102 violations.

Perhaps the most high-profile case of a criminal prosecution for flag desecration came in 2003 when a young communist was accused of placing the flag atop the State Duma. The young man, Armen Beniaminov, maintained during his trial that he had not placed a flag on the roof but had thrown off pamphlets tied to a parachute. The two witnesses who testified at the trial, Duma guards from the Federal Security Service, said they did not find a flag on the roof or on the street below. Beniaminov was convicted of flag desecration and given a one-year suspended sentence.

In May, Stavropol regional prosecutors went after 10 local businessmen who raised flags at their offices for no particular reason. The court in the city of Yessentuki fined the 10 -- the heads of six health resorts, two shops owners, a cafe owner and a gas station owner -- and ordered them to remove the flags, Interfax reported.

Georgy Vilinbakhov, the head of the federal agency overseeing state symbols, said Tuesday that such zeal by prosecutors was unneeded and absurd.

Krasnoyarsk regional prosecutors in 2004 demanded that the Pikra brewery remove the flag from its headquarters. The company, now controlled by Baltika brewery, removed the flag immediately but asked the regional legislature to prepare an amendment to federal law and submit it to the Duma. The Duma rejected the amendment in May.

Many lawmakers have also tried to change the law. Liberal Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin tried to abolish all limitations on displaying the flag in 2003. United Russia Deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov proposed a similar amendment this summer. Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior United Russia official and deputy, said the amendment might be passed this fall, Interfax reported Tuesday.