Russian YouTuber convicted of blasphemy after playing Pokémon Go in a church

Russian authorities have blatantly misused the criminal justice system, including draconian anti-extremist legislation, in a show trial against blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky, said Amnesty International today.

A court in Yekaterinburg today gave the 22-year-old blogger a three-and-a-half year suspended prison sentence for “inciting hatred” and “offending believers’ feelings”. He was arrested in September 2016 for playing Pokémon Go in a cathedral in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals.

“While some may see Ruslan Sokolovsky’s comments on religion as disparaging, this alone is not enough to prosecute him. Sokolovsky came to the attention of the authorities only when he publicly challenged absurdly harsh Russian legislation that criminalized offending believers’ feelings,” said Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia.

“With Sokolovsky’s conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country’s grotesque ‘blasphemy’ law. Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia – especially coming after the authorities only last month banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is another assault on freedom of expression.”

With Sokolovsky’s conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country’s grotesque ‘blasphemy’ law
Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia

The sentencing of Ruslan Sokolovsky has already resulted in worrying self-censorship by media outlets. The latest example is the TV cable network 2x2, which banned an episode of the popular US cartoon ‘The Simpsons’ which satirized the Pokémon Go church incident.

Background

Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested under charges of “public actions expressing clear disrespect to society with the aim to insult religious feelings of believers committed in places for religious worship” and “incitement of hatred” on 3 September 2016.

His YouTube video, in which he played the game Pokémon Go on his mobile phone in one of the biggest churches in Yekaterinburg, served as a pretext for criminal proceedings. Since then the prosecution trawled through Sokolovsky’s earlier uploaded videos, bringing the total number of incriminating episodes to 17.

Ruslan Sokolovsky has been convicted under Article 282 (incitement of hatred or enmity and humiliation of human dignity) and Article 148 (violation of the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Article 282, which was further harshened in 2016, is frequently used to prosecute government critics and other dissenting voices in Russia.

Article 148 was changed in 2013 with the adoption of a piece of legislation, commonly known as the “blasphemy law”. It was since used to criminalize actions such as the political performance by Pussy Riot punk group in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, for which its members were arbitrarily prosecuted and imprisoned for “hooliganism” charges.