Maria Kravchenko, of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, is the author of Inventing Extremists: The Impact of Russian Anti-Extremism Policies on Freedom of Religion or Belief, a report for the USCIRF
Russian anti-extremist legislation provides multiple instruments for the state to actively intervene in the religious sphere. As a result, there are numerous cases of abuse and overreaction on behalf of the state. Many cases of prosecuting “religious extremism” rely on a broad and vague definition of extremist activity incorporated in the Russian Law on Combating Extremist Activity (2002)). In contrast to numerous international documents (see for example the OSCE/ODIHR Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security Policy Guidance)), the Russian definition of extremism penalizes both violent and non-violent extremist acts as well as mere claims of religious and belief-related superiority. Such claims expressed in religious literature or public speeches could result in banning a religious group and prosecuting leaders and adherents as members of extremist organizations regardless of their actual involvement in extremism.
When unusual religious practices or principles are inconvenient for the state, no wonder state authorities call them suspicious. Unconventional groups are often considered to be aggressive per se and accused of posing a substantial threat to society under an anti-extremist legal framework. Out of convenience, the government ends up targeting whole religious groups rather than applying general rules of criminal law against violent crimes or fraud and forming concrete allegations against individuals. Prosecutions of members of such groups under severe counter-extremist norms have frequently proved to be disproportionate. Here, the case of the Faizrakhamanist community in Tatarstan is quite emblematic.
Faizrakhaman Sattarov and Faizrakhamanists
The community was named after its leader Faizrakhman Sattarov. Sattarov studied Islam in Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1970s, Sattarov was the deputy mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the European Part of the USSR and Siberia in Ufa, Bashkiria. In the 1980s, he shifted from traditional Islam to religious mysticism and proclaimed himself a messenger of Allah, causing his expulsion from the Spiritual Board of Muslims and prohibition to enter mosques. In the 1990s, Sattarov managed to register his community officially and to preach openly in cities of Kazan, Naberezhnye Chelny, and Ufa. Still, his congregation never exceeded 80 members. After little success in spreading beliefs, one of Sattarov’s followers bought 0.7 hectares in Kazan, Republic of Tatarstan, where the community moved in 1999 to seek an isolated way of life. They declared themselves their own Islamic state living in accordance with their interpretation of the Quran. The community was not hostile to outer society even though Faizrakhmanist leaders opposed secular authorities, forbade members from seeking help from outside medical institutions, and prohibited sending children to outside schools.
Search of the Compound
In 2012, after the murder of Valiulla Yakpov, the deputy mufti of the Republic of Tatarstan, and an attempt to assassinate mufti Ildus Faizov, local law enforcement agencies searched the Faizrakhmanists’ land. The authorities alleged that the community both stored weapons illegally and had antagonized Yakupov, who had criticized living conditions for Faizrakhmanist children. The government found no weapons and failed to confirm suspicions of the group’s involvement in the murder and attempted murder, but the search provided other grounds for prosecuting the community members. On the Faizrakhmanists’ property the authorities found a multistory underground building housing 65 men, women, and children who lived in tiny rooms and in unsanitary conditions. The children did not go to school and could not leave the compound; a 17-year-old girl was reported pregnant. Some of the community, including its leader Faizrakhman Sattarov, strongly needed medical care but refused it. The children were taken from their parents and sent to hospitals and then to orphanages, and the adults faced charges for failure to fulfil their duties as parents.
Sattarov was charged with arbitrariness—a specific corpus delicti in Russian criminal law meaning the unauthorized commission of actions contrary to the order presented by a law or any other normative legal act. Actions that private individuals or organizations claim have unlawfully inflicted substantial harm also may fall under arbitrariness. The most obvious way to move forward was to charge Sattarov and his closest assistants under Article 239 of the Russian Criminal Code (organization of an association infringing upon the liberties and rights of individuals), which stipulates for up to three years of imprisonment for the “creation of a religious or public association whose activity is fraught with violence against individuals or with the infliction of injury to their health, or with inducement of individuals to refuse to discharge their civil duties or to commit other unlawful deeds, and likewise operation of such an association.” However, the authorities followed a different path.
Ban of Faizrakhamanists as an Extremist Group
In February 2013, the Faizrakhmanists religious group led by Sattarov and his closest assistant Gumar Ganiev was banned as extremist. The prosecutor’s office argued that the community’s isolated way of life was harmful for both its members’ health and the children’s development and thus violated the members’ rights. However, these claims, while quite justified, were insufficient to serve as grounds for banning the whole community as extremist, because the group never propagated discrimination, hatred, or violence based on religion. The prosecutors referred to the long definition of extremist activity in the Law on Combating Extremist Activity that included the “violation of human and civil rights and freedoms and lawful interests in connection with a person’s social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude to religion” or public calls to such. Here, we see a significant deficiency of the law: the definition targets discrimination or inciting discrimination that directly endangers the public, not unusual behavior like self-isolation and austerity. The above-mentioned Article 239 of the Russian Criminal Code, which targets specific individuals rather than entire groups, would be far more applicable in the Faizrakhmanists case than counter-extremism laws.
Later, the prosecutor’s office filed an injunction to ban as extremist Sattarov’s handwritten collection of 78 books and brochures that were seized from the community during the 2012 search. The prosecution claimed that the collection, which included Sattarov’s teachings along with the Quran, incited religious discord, and in summer 2013 the court upheld the claim. The community was forcibly removed from their property and forced to go back to their initial residences. Children were returned to their parents only after they consented to abandon their religious practices.
After the Ban
Sattarov died in 2015. His successor Gumar Ganiev moved to his teacher’s former apartment in Naberezhnye Chelny. According to the government investigation, he continued the group’s activity, guiding his followers who went preaching, adding new members, and raising funds for the community and the construction of a new mosque. In June 2018, Ganiev and four of his followers were charged with organizing activity for an organization banned as extremist or participating in it, involving others in activities of an extremist organization, and financing the activity of such. 52-year-old Gumar Ganiev was sentenced to seven years in prison; 58-year-old Talgat Gizatullin and 41-year-old Rustam Galiev were sentenced to five years; 58-year-old Glimyan Khazetdinov to six years; and 61-year-old Mudaris Ibragimov to five and a half.
Due to anti-extremist legislation, law enforcement did not have to prove that the community caused any actual damage to themselves or others. The Russian Criminal Code article on extremist organizations stipulates severe punishment for members of a banned group solely based on continuating any collective activity, criminal or not, including organizing or participating in meetings. The laws do not provide any clarification on how to implement such a provision correctly and therefore give wide latitude to prosecutors. The result is multiple disproportionate penalties for followers of various banned religious groups, including lengthy prison terms. Unfortunately, the Faizrakhmanists case has been no exception.