In a twist that would have been unthinkable five decades ago, a man in Russia could go to jail for blogging that God does not exist.
Ironically, Viktor Krasnov’s day in court was to be Tuesday, which was the 55th anniversary of the historic space flight of Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev later said in a speech that Gargarin found no evidence of God while orbiting Earth.
Much has changed since 1961, but the change that concerns religious freedom advocates was prompted by a protest the feminist punk rock band known as Pussy Riot staged in a Russian Orthodox church four years ago. The group went on to produce a video calling on the Mother of God to “drive out” Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutors were able to slap the gals with no more than a charge of “hooliganism.” So the Duma passed Criminal Code Article 148, Part 1 (“Public actions, expressing obvious disrespect for society and committed with the intention of insulting the religious feelings of believers”).
Blogger Viktor Krasnov, who lives in Stavropol, is one of the first to feel the weight of the new law. As Kommersant explained:
In 2014 Mr. Krasnov got into an argument about religion with two users of the network. In arguing for his position, the blogger called the Bible a “collection of Jewish fairy tales” and also added: “There is no God.” In reply, his Internet opponents wrote to law enforcement agencies a statement against Mr. Krasnov. In February of this year a consideration of his criminal case, that had been opened on the basis of article 148, was begun in Stavropol.
Krasnov and his attorney, Andrei Sabinin, are challenging the law’s constitutionality, contending that Article 148 violates the right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Russian constitution. The attorney cites a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that says criticism of political or religious organizations in and of itself cannot be viewed as action “intended to incite hatred or strife.”
Forum 18 News Service, a Christian organization promoting religious freedom, says that Krasnov was “exercising his internationally recognized right to freedom of religion or belief.”
“Critics noted that Article 148 was so poorly defined that it (and the similarly aimed new Code of Administrative Offences Article 5, Part 26) could be used to prosecute actions officials simply dislike,” said Forum 18. “Considerable disagreement exists in both the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Russian society over the criminalization of ‘insulting religious feelings.’”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has placed Russia on its second tier of “countries of particular concern,” citing restrictions on Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Another irony involved here may be that, while Putin is supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in fighting, among others, Islamists who want to apply “blasphemy laws” against those who insult the Prophet Muhammad, his own country now has a very similar law.