Dozens in Russia imprisoned for social media likes, reposts

In this family handout photo taken on Sept. 25, 2010 and provided by Anastasia Bubeyeva, her husband Andrei Bubeyev looks on at the Volga river in Tver, Russia. Bubeyev is one of dozens of rank-and-file social media users who have been sentenced to time in prison for online hate speech. (Anastasia Bubeyeva/ Family Handout photo via AP)

TVER, Russia (AP) — Anastasia Bubeyeva shows a screenshot on her computer of a picture of a toothpaste tube with the words: “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!” For sharing this picture on a social media site with his 12 friends, her husband was sentenced this month to more than two years in prison.

As the Kremlin claims unequivocal support among Russians for its policies both at home and abroad, a crackdown is underway against ordinary social media users who post things that run against the official narrative. Here the Kremlin’s interests coincide with those of investigators, who are anxious to report high conviction rates for extremism. The Kremlin didn’t immediately comment on the issue.

At least 54 people were sent to prison for hate speech last year, most of them for sharing and posting things online, which is almost five times as many as five years ago, according to the Moscow-based Sova group, which studies human rights, nationalism and xenophobia in Russia. The overall number of convictions for hate speech in Russia increased to 233 last year from 92 in 2010.

 A 2002 Russian law defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. The vagueness of the phrasing and the scope of offenses that fall under the extremism clause allow for the prosecution of a wide range of people, from those who set up an extremist cell or display Nazi symbols to anyone who writes something online that could be deemed a danger to the state. In the end, it’s up to the court to decide whether a social media post poses a danger to the nation or not.

In February 2014, when Ukraine was in the middle of a pro-European revolution, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill tightening penalties for non-violent extremist crimes such as hate speech. In July of that year, three months after Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula, he signed a bill making calls “to destroy” Russia’s territorial integrity a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The new amendment makes the denial of Russia’s claims on Crimea an even greater offense if the statement is made in the press or online, even on a private social media account.

Many of the shares that led to the recent rash of convictions were of things critical of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

This was true of the articles and images shared by Bubeyeva’s husband, a 40-year-old electrician from Tver, a sleepy provincial capital halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“Andrei Bubeyev thinks that he was charged as an example so that other ordinary citizens would be discouraged from expressing their opinion,” said his lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina.

Bubeyev spent a lot of time online, sharing links to various articles on his VKontakte page and engaging in political debates on local news websites, his wife says.

In spring 2015, he left town to work on a rural construction site. After investigators couldn’t get through to him on the phone, they put him on a wanted list as an extremism suspect. When Bubeyev stopped by to visit his wife and young son at their country cottage, a SWAT team stormed in and arrested him.

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