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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Extremism Cases Call Experts Into Question

For more than 20 years, the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial founding father of the Church of Scientology, have been widely available for purchase in Russia.

But following a recent ruling by a court in the Siberian city of Surgut, all of his works related to Scientology have been banned as extremist. Prosecutors said the writings undermined the "traditional spiritual values" of the country's citizens, citing the opinions of "psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists." A local court agreed.

Irina Shiryayeva, a spokeswoman for the Surgut transport prosecutor’s office — which initiated the case along with local customs officials — told The Moscow Times on Thursday that prosecutors used a “number of experts” to identify the works as extremist, though she declined to identify them.

“It would be good if they were to remain behind the scenes,” she said.

The ruling appeared to be just the latest strike against nontraditional religious movements in Russia. Scientologists from Surgut and Nizhnekamsk won rulings against Russia last year in the European Court of Human Rights for refusing to recognize their organization as a religion.

But a spate of similar decisions in recent months has raised concerns among extremism scholars and rights experts about the competence and independence of those who are invited by prosecutors to offer their testimony.

A series of changes to the law on extremism signed by then-President Vladimir Putin in 2006 and 2007 expanded it considerably, introducing harsher punishments and allowing local courts to add works to a federal list of extremist materials.

If caught with titles on the list, an individual faces a fine of up to 3,000 rubles ($100) and up to 15 days in jail, while a legal entity could be fined up to 100,000 rubles ($3,400) and closed for up to 90 days.

No criminal charges apply, although possession of extremist materials can make punishment for other crimes more severe.

The changes have sparked a series of contentious and often bizarre rulings, prompting even the experts who are asked to testify on extremism to question the law's merits.

For example, a court in the Rostov region decided to ban a local branch of Jehovah's Witnesses in September 2009 for extremism, citing, among other things, an expert opinion on a passage written by Leo Tolstoy.

A magazine published by the group had quoted a passage written more than 100 years earlier by Tolstoy, one of Russia's most beloved authors, in which he railed against the Russian Orthodox Church's growing influence.

A panel of invited experts labeled the comments extremist — to the bewilderment of Jehovah's Witnesses and literary scholars alike.

“By considering this text extremist, the court has considered Leo Tolstoy an [extremist],” Grigory Martynov, a spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, told The Moscow Times.

Courts are hearing more and more extremism cases that require expert testimony on a slogan, article, book or message, but the quality of their assessments is becoming increasingly dubious, said Mikhail Gorbanevsky, a Moscow linguistics professor whose GLADIS center is sometimes asked for expert testimony on extremism.

One of the most astonishing examples, he said, was from Yelena Kiryukhina, a specialist with the state-run Center for Forensic Expertise in St. Petersburg.

Kiryukhina was asked to testify in a criminal case against a gang of skinheads charged in the brutal beating of St. Petersburg ninth-grader Tagir Kerimov in February 2009. Witnesses said the men were shouting racist slogans, such as "Death to Khachs," a derogatory name for natives of the Caucasus.

Kiryukhina told the court that the slogans “might have been or might have not been xenophobic.” The attackers were later convicted of hooliganism, a lesser charge than a racially motivated attack, drawing a major public outcry.

She also was the expert who found an episode of "South Park" extremist in 2008, although rulings against the U.S. cartoon and the television network 2x2 were later overturned.

Kiryukhina, who now works for the St. Petersburg branch of the Investigative Committee, was not available for comment on this article.

In another recent case, director Pavel Bardin's anti-skinhead mockumentary "Russia 88" was accused of being extremist by Samara prosecutors, who asked a court to ban it.

They cited the opinion of Shamil Makhmudov, a Russian language professor at Samara State University, who said he thought hateful remarks by the film's characters were the position of the film's makers.

“He has turned everything upside down,” Bardin said at the time.

Samara prosecutors called off the case in January after the Prosecutor General's Office said it needed additional opinions before a final decision could be made.

People employed by state institutions or private companies may be called on for testimony, and their findings should be considered equally by the court, according to a 2006 arbitration court ruling.

An author whose work is accused of extremism is also allowed to invite experts to testify. They can be paid up to 600 euros ($800) for their services, although typically the sum is far less.

Yelena Galyashina, a law professor at Moscow State Law Academy and an authority on extremism in Russia, said experts are required to be independent.

Those working for the Justice Ministry and Federal Security Service are often more professional than private analysts, because studying extremism is their only job, she said. Testimony from independent analysts is more frequently biased or made under pressure from local law enforcement, particularly in the regions.

"Often a dean of some provincial university is asked by a local law enforcement agency to order some of his scholars to provide the expert opinion that's needed,” said Gorbanevsky, from GLADIS.

Private experts in high-profile extremism cases are often found seemingly at random.

Tatyana Shulga, a psychology professor at Moscow Region State University, said she was stunned when the Moscow City Prosecutor's Office asked her to do a linguistic assessment of a book by liberal political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky in 2007.

Shulga told the prosecutors that she could provide only a psychological opinion.

“They didn’t even care, they just wanted to have something,” she told The Moscow Times.

One of the most controversial cases was the 2002 libel suit of veteran Boris Stambler against Viktor Korchagin, publisher of the far-right Rusich magazine.

Although the magazine was openly calling for the deportation of Jews from Russia and criticizing Orthodox Christianity, Maria Krutova, a specialist in Russian Orthodox studies, said told the court that she did not see signs of hate speech.

"I just didn’t want the old man to be imprisoned. I felt sorry for him,” Krutova told The Moscow Times, recalling her decision.

The Justice Ministry's list of extremist materials had 592 items as of Thursday, mainly pieces from anti-Semitic newspapers, radical Islamist articles and even leaflets critical of the authorities.

Hubbard's texts have not yet appeared on the federal list, a process that sometimes can take months. Once on the list, a book or film can be removed only by court order.

Although it maintains the list, the Justice Ministry cannot add or remove items. Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov told The Moscow Times in February that the ministry's expert council, which provides opinions on extremist materials, should be allowed to seek changes to the list in court.

The list contains a number of oddly specific items, such as "a poster with a grinning Winnie the Pooh and a swastika armband," which is part of entry No. 414.

Part of the problem is that the process is not treated seriously by many of the experts, said Galyashina, the Moscow State Law Academy professor.

While expert witnesses often play an important role in the legal process in the United States, a court in Russia might ignore them altogether, she said.

“For Western experts, their professional reputation is the most important, but our experts are not afraid to lose their jobs. In Russia, any person from the street can be an expert,” she said.

Investigators often call in specialists to avoid making a tricky decision themselves, said Galina Kozhevnikova, an analyst at Moscow-based extremism watchdog Sova.

"Since extremist articles are usually political, investigators don’t want to deal with them. So they leave this work to experts,” she said.

The problem is exacerbated by ambiguities in the law, analysts contacted for this article said.

“The Russian law on extremism gives a very random definition of extremist activity, allowing authorities to use it against dissent," Gorbanevsky said, from GLADIS.

Being a principled witness in extremism cases can be risky, especially since the death of professor Nikolai Girenko, whose assessments played a crucial role in a number of high-profile cases against far-right nationalists.

Death threats began appearing on nationalist web sites, and he was gunned down in his St. Petersburg apartment in June 2004 — a killing that remains unsolved.

Gorbanevsky said an expert working with his team recently found a note in her mailbox reading: "Remember Girenko."