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2013

  • 1 July 2013 : “Law on offending religious feelings” comes into effect

On 29 June 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed federal law no. 136-03 (FZ), amending Article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code and 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offences. In the Russian media, the law is called the “Law on offending religious feelings”. It came into effect on 1 July 2013.

The draft bill was introduced in Autumn 2012 following the scandal that arose in Spring 2012 involving the punk group Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. At that time, disturbing public order in an intentional and blasphemous way in a place of worship was punished by a maximum fine of 1000 roubles (about 25 euros). The three young women in the Pussy Riot group were convicted on questionable grounds for a crime under Article 213 of the Russian Criminal Code (hooliganism motivated by hatred of a particular social group - in this specific case Orthodox priests and believers).

But this draft is not only the result of a one-off scandal. In recent years in Russia, several conflicts have erupted as a result of blasphemous offences committed against Christian and Muslim worshippers. Respect for religious and ethnic traditions is a very sensitive issue in Russian society, being of a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic nature. The legislator needs to take care to avoid possible violent reactions from offended worshippers or even riots and lynchings in reaction to the impunity enjoyed by offenders. One must also consider the fact that Russian society had undergone, until not so long ago, 70 years of totalitarianism and atheism.

The law has been criticised regarding the use of the wording “offends religious feelings”. Some of its opponents apply an absurd logic, claiming that each statement denying the existence of God may offend the faithful and that, in a multicultural society, a person’s behaviour, beliefs and customs may, most of the time, be described as unacceptable and offensive to another person. But what the law is highlighting here is an offence that is 1) intentional, 2) public and 3) indecent, manifesting a disrespectful attitude towards society. This means that non-offensive criticism of religion, worship or beliefs and unintentionally formulated offences in respect of canons and religious traditions are not sanctioned. In addition to protecting religious or liturgical texts and religious objects, the law condemns the desecration of symbols, emblems or attributes of ideological convictions. This includes protection of atheists’ symbols and non-religious convictions and beliefs (ideological, philosophical or political), e.g. the Communist hammer and sickle symbol etc.

Previously, the Russian Criminal Code would punish in Article 148 only “illegal obstruction of the activities of religious organisations or the exercising of religious rites”. So far, nobody has been sentenced in accordance with this article or section 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offences (see infra).

The law has increased the maximum fine from 80,000 to 300,000 roubles and adds three new paragraphs (1, 2 and 4) to Article 148 of the Criminal Code :

“Article 148. Violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion :

1. Public acts that manifest patent disrespect for society and are committed with the aim of offending the feelings of religious believers shall be punishable by a fine amounting to a maximum of three hundred thousand roubles or the offender’s salary or other income for a maximum period of two years or compulsory labour for a maximum period of two hundred and forty hours or forced labour for a period of one year or deprivation of liberty of the same duration.

2. The actions described within the first paragraph of this article, perpetrated in places specially assigned to the practising of religious services or other rites and religious ceremonies, shall be punishable by a fine amounting to five hundred thousand roubles maximum or the offender’s salary or any other income for a maximum three year period or a maximum of four hundred and eighty hours’ compulsory labour or enforced labour for a maximum of three years or “loss of liberty” (prison sentence) of the same duration able to include a “restriction on freedom” (stay in a specialised establishment) for a one year period.

3. Illegally preventing the activity of religious organisations or the practising of religious services or other rites and religious ceremonies shall be punishable by a maximum fine of three hundred thousand roubles or the offender’s salary or other income for a maximum period of two years or compulsory labour for a maximum period of three hundred and sixty hours or correctional labour for a period of up to one year or arrest for a maximum of three months.

4. The actions described in the third paragraph of this article, when perpetrated by persons in authority or with use or threat of violence, shall be punishable by a maximum fine amounting to two hundred thousand roubles or the offender’s salary or other income for a maximum period of one year or by compulsory labour for a maximum period of four hundred eighty hours or by correctional labour for a maximum period of two years or by forced labour for a maximum period of one year or by deprivation of liberty of the same duration with the forfeiture of certain duties or a ban on practising certain specific activities for a maximum period of two years”.

Section 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offences provides that anyone who infringes the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and offends religious feelings is punishable by a fine of 1000 roubles (about 25 euros) maximum. The law significantly increases the fines provided for in this article and replaces the term “offence” by the expression “intentional public offence”, thus underlining the intention and the public nature of the violation. It adds to the list of objects of desecration “religious or liturgical texts (books)”, probably as a result of the scandal after an American pastor burned a Quran in public.

“Article 5.26. Violation of the laws on freedom of conscience and freedom of belief, as well as on religious associations.

1. Obstructing the exercise of the right to freedom of conscience or freedom of belief, including the adoption of religious or other beliefs, or refusal thereof, as well as obstructing the entry into a religious association or the exit therefrom - shall entail the imposition of a fine of ten thousand roubles minimum and thirty thousand roubles maximum ; for state officials, the fine is raised to between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand roubles.

2. Intentional public profanation of religious or liturgical texts (books), objects of worship, symbols, emblems or attributes of ideological convictions and their deterioration or destruction is punishable by a fine of thirty thousand roubles minimum and fifty thousand roubles maximum or compulsory labour for a duration of one hundred and twenty hours maximum ; for state officials, the fine is raised to between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand roubles”.

It is likely that the new law will rarely be applied and that it will primarily constitute a preventive measure as regards acts of violence of an anti-religious nature.

16 juillet 2013