In 2013, President Putin signed a law amending the Federal Penal Code and incorporating a ‘blasphemy’ clause in part as a response to the Pussy Riot case in 2012. The President’s Office stated that the law “introduces liability for public action that shows clear and obvious disrespect for society and intent to offend religious believers’ feelings.”
If convicted of offending religious believers, one can be sentenced to fines, corrective work, or imprisonment for up to a year, and up to three years if the crime is committed in a place of worship.
Research shows that since the ‘blasphemy’ law was introduced in 2013, media and journalists tend to self-censor themselves as they zealously avoid writing about religion due to the clause’s imprecise and unclear wording, due to fear of strict punishments.
About half of the journalists that took part in research conducted by Evgeniy Onegin stated that exceptions were made to the rule about avoiding religious issues for the Russian Orthodox Church, which bolsters Freedom House’s analysis of freedom of religion and belief in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has a privileged position in society and freedom of religion or belief is respected unevenly in the country.
Since the last election held in Russia, the government’s rhetoric has been highly influenced by religious sentiment, defending “traditional values” meaning opposing gay marriages and liberalism, and promoting Russian Orthodox belief. These “traditional values” were anchored further on 29 June 2020 when the majority of the Russian population voted “yes” in a referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution. The amendments include one stating that a belief in God is a core national value, a ban on same-sex marriages, and enabling Putin to seek additional terms as president.
Article 148 of the Penal Code reads*:
1. Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers shall be punishable by a fine in an amount of up to three hundred thousand rubles, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of up to two years, or by compulsory works for a term of up to two hundred and forty hours, or by compulsory labor for a term of up to one year, or by imprisonment for the same term.
2. The acts provided for in the first part of this article, committed in places specially designated for conducting divine services, other religious rites and ceremonies, shall be punishable by a fine in an amount of up to 500 thousand rubles, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of up to three years, or by compulsory works for a term of up to four hundred and eighty hours, or by compulsory labor for a term of up to three years, or by imprisonment for the same term with restriction of liberty for up to one year or without it.
Since the ‘blasphemy’ law was introduced seven years ago, there have been 19 prosecutions under Article 148, 12 of which resulted in a conviction. While these numbers are not significantly high, ‘blasphemy’ laws are profoundly problematic as they are an undue limitation on freedom of expression, which is only one of several human rights under severe threat in Putin’s Russia.
Prosecutors in Russia have reportedly lost interest in Article 148 of the Penal Code and the authorities are relying on private individuals filing their complaint with the respective authorities, like in the case of Aleksandr Dolgopolov (see below). This is highly problematic as there is still a lot of confusion around what it means to offend the “religious feelings of believers”. Allowing the public to file a complaint regarding such a serious allegation of ‘blasphemy’ can make the usage arbitrary and a complaint can be lodged by individuals with ulterior motives.
Moreover, in a country where the judiciary lacks independence from the executive branch and due process is not guaranteed, with a justice system with an acquittal rate of 0.25%, it is natural to assume that individuals charged with ‘blasphemy’ stand very little chance of being acquitted in today’s Russia.
While the application of Article 148 appears to be on the decline – with 10 recorded cases in 2017, eight in 2018 and one in 2019 – as long as ‘blasphemy’ is an offense in Russia, freedom of expression will remain under severe threat.
In February 2019, Russian stand-up comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov made jokes about Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin’s supporters. A video of his act was uploaded on YouTube. A year later, after watching the video, an individual filed a complaint with the authorities alleging that Dolgopolov had “offended the feelings of religious believers”. In January 2020, the venue where Dolgopolov had performed was asked by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for information about the performance. Dolgopolov received news that the local police had opened an investigation into him under Article 148 of the Penal Code, the country’s ‘blasphemy’ provision. Fearing for his safety, Dolgopolov fled the country but has since returned to Russia.
* This is an unofficial translation.