Police officers detain a man in Moscow on September 24, 2022, following calls to protest against the partial mobilisation announced by the Russian President

Russia: Surge in abuse of anti-terrorism laws to suppress dissent

A disturbing escalation in the abuse of vague anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation in Russia has intensified since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Amnesty International said today.

The briefing “Terrorising the dissent” documents how Russia’s authorities have increasingly targeted dissenters and peaceful protesters under the guise of “national security.”

“What we are witnessing in Russia today is not just a misuse of law. The authorities have instrumentalized anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation as tools to stifle dissent and control public discourse in ways that are alarming and heartbreaking. These laws, vague in their wording and arbitrary in their application, are used to silence voices of opposition and instill fear among those who dare to speak out,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher.

The [anti-terrorism and anti-extremism] laws, vague in their wording and arbitrary in their application, are used to silence voices of opposition and instill fear among those who dare to speak out

Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

“Lengthy prison terms are handed out by military courts behind closed doors, often for an online comment or a donation to an opposition group. The authorities are able to label individuals as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’ and cut them off from financial services and basic income without even needing a court order. The psychological and emotional toll on individuals and their families is immeasurable, and the chilling effect on the entire Russian society is profound.”

Since 2013, 3,738 people have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Notably, more than 90% of these convictions did not arise in relation to terrorist attacks, committed or planned, but rather various other actions such as purported “justification of terrorism.” And for these, convictions have increased 50-fold during the last 10 years. No one charged with terrorism-related offences has been acquitted since at least 2015, when the statistics first became available.

As of December 2023, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service’s “List of Terrorists and Extremists” included 13,647 people, with 11,286 labelled as “terrorists.” Of them, 13% were women and 106 were under 18 years old. Being included in this registry, which happens without any judicial review, leads to the freezing of bank accounts and restricts monthly spending to 10,000 roubles, or around US$ 110. It poses significant challenges in maintaining even basic living standards for those listed.

In the first six months of 2023 alone, Russian courts convicted 39 individuals of committing or planning terrorist attacks, more than in any entire year in the last decade. This signals a sharp growth in the number of terrorism-related cases. Many of the recent terrorism charges were pressed against people who had protested the war or the military mobilization by throwing “Molotov cocktails” at conscription centres and other official buildings. In many of these cases the actions took place at night, when the buildings were uninhabited, and the areas targeted were often made of concrete or metal so had low chances of catching fire. Qualification as ‘terrorism’ of at least some of these acts, where they did not pose a threat of serious injury, raises concerns that Russian authorities are abusing these charges.

Hundreds of individuals were convicted under “justification of terrorism” charges for merely discussing or expressing sympathy towards specific actions or entities arbitrarily designated as “terrorist” by the Russian authorities. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, expressions of sympathy for Ukraine – such as displaying contentment about its military successes or support for the Ukrainian military units consisting of Russian volunteers – became enough for such persecutions.

Among the most egregious examples of the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation is the case of Aleksei Gorinov, a local councillor sentenced to seven years in prison for criticizing the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine. Already in prison and serving his sentence, he was accused under a new terrorism-related charge for allegedly sharing his views on the war with his cellmate. Similarly, writer Grigori Chkhartishvili, known by his pen name Boris Akunin, was charged in absentia with “justifying terrorism” through his public statements. Since trials on terrorism-related charges are closed by default, the essence of the charges remains unclear. The Ministry of Justice only reported that the writer “actively spoke out against the special military operation in Ukraine, disseminated false information aimed at creating a negative image of the Russian Federation, as well as the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”

These and numerous other cases demonstrate the broad application of these laws against any form of dissent. 

Stifling opposition and expression”

The expansion of Russia’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws, including the 2006 criminalization of “justification of terrorism” and the 2023 proposal to criminalize the “justification of extremism” further blurs the lines between terrorism and extremism – neither of which are well defined in international law, and both of which are frequently weaponized to stifle dissent.   

“These steps demonstrate a systematic approach to broaden definitions and penalties, stifling political opposition and freedom of expression under the guise of ‘national security’,” said Oleg Kozlovsky.

[The expansion of Russia’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws] demonstrate[s] a systematic approach to broaden definitions and penalties, stifling political opposition and freedom of expression under the guise of ‘national security’

Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

A stark example is the designation of Aleksei Navalny’s NGO Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization,” effectively criminalizing one of the most vocal civil initiatives in Russia. Individuals who donated money to this and similar groups, taken part in them or shared their materials – even before their arbitrary designation as extremist – are now at risk of criminal charges and long imprisonment.

“In light of these findings, Amnesty International calls for a thorough review of Russia’s criminal legislation dealing with terrorism and extremism to align it with international human rights standards, preventing the criminalization of peaceful dissent and protecting fundamental rights. We urge the international community to address these abuses in all relevant forums, advocating for the rights of those unjustly targeted, and to take these practices into account when dealing with Russian counterparts, including in counter terrorism initiatives.”