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Defamation claims to return to Russia’s Criminal Code

July 09, 2012, 16:02 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

An article punishing for defamation will return to Russia’s Criminal Code after it was taken away from it at the initiative of ex-president Dmitry Medvedev last year.

Authors of the draft law – parliamentarians from the ruling party United Russia – insist that “decriminalization of this article brought no good.”

Along with this opponents of the pro-governmental party believe that the initiative is aimed at suppressing protest activities inside the country. Experts say decriminalization of defamation clauses is a global trend.

On Friday a group of United Russia’s parliamentarians submitted to the lower house of parliament for consideration a draft law bringing back punishment for defamation to the Criminal Code and increasing fines for insulting words and behavior in the Code of Administrative Offences.

Defamation-related crimes will be punished with fines of up to 500,000 roubles, correctional labour or imprisonment of up to five years. A sentence on charges of defamation and libel will depend on the degree of crime.

Authors of the draft law believe that an article punishing for insulting words or behavior should remain in the Code of Administrative Offences, but fines imposed for this offence should be increased multifold – from 1,000-3,000 roubles to 30,000-50,000 roubles.

Defamation stopped to be a criminal offence in December 2011 within the framework of then President Dmitry Medvedev’s campaign to liberalize the criminal legislation. Today defamation is an administrative offence and a wrongdoer may face a 5,000 rouble fine as maximum punishment.

A complete transcript of the State Duma’s plenary sessions, where Medvedev’s proposal was debated, demonstrated that Maxim Rokhmistrov, a parliamentarian from the Liberal Democratic Party, was the only legislator, who expressed concern over making defamation an administrative violation, the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily reported.

There were no doubts in the rightness of the decision taken, either in a conclusion of the special committee (that is chaired by one of the draft law’s authors, Pavel Krasheninnikov), or in the conclusions of the Supreme Court and the government.

However, now the motion’s authors take decisive steps. Decriminalization of defamation “brought no good,” the head of the Duma committee on legislation, Pavel Krasheninnikov, said. Some citizens, practically remaining unpunished, accuse people of committing most serious sins calling them as bandits, terrorists and corrupt persons, he said.

The parliamentarian expressed confidence that an administrative article on defamation does not fully protect Russian citizens, although he provided no statistics to prove these words. Defamation should be a criminal offence, as it may cause more sufferings to a person than any beating that falls under the criminal law.

Krasheninnikov highlighted that a new variant and not old version of the article will return to the Criminal Code, as parliamentarians significantly amended it.

“Unfortunately, recently we’ve been facing bacchanalia of information wars in the media and the Internet that use different “dirty” tools,” the deputy chairman of the Duma constitutional legislation committee, Dmitry Vyatkin, said.

“Decriminalization of defamation only contributes to the growth of chaotic and absolutely groundless disparagement of people,” another author of the draft aw, Alexander Khinshtein, said. Liberalization of the criminal legislation “is a good thing, but it is not always justified.”

A political spin doctor working with United Russia told RBK daily that he was not surprised with the initiative. From the end of 2010 there have been talks about the creation of a mechanism protecting federal civil servants from unproved accusations. Now the ruling party is thinking over how to get rid of their label of “swindlers and thieves.” Recent initiatives put forward by United Russia and law enforcers are aimed at exerting pressure on the opposition to make it defend itself and to have no strength to criticize the authorities as concerns problems that are really essential for the country.

The draft law’s authors said there was no need to search for a political implication in this move. Nevertheless, human rights activists believe that a new legislative initiative will most seriously affect political activists and bloggers. Many lawyers also categorically oppose this step.

“Human rights activists try to mind their words, journalists can be corrected by editors, while bloggers have a false feeling of safety, therefore they often turn to be a less protected group,” the head of the human rights organization Agora, Pavel Chikov, said. When Article 129 was in force, 221 people were sentenced in 2011 alone, and their number may double, after new amendments enter into effect. “This is evidently a political story,” Chikov said.

“This is the attack on the freedom of speech for people to fear to speak and to criticize the authorities,” Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin said. “Any criticism can be interpreted as defamation and for this any person can be taken to prison for five years. This is the strongest pressure on independent media and journalists, who still dare to write something critical about the authorities. Moreover, this measure is directed against people who write their critical blogs in the Internet.”

The punishment for defamation was decriminalized after a long-time debate that provided the convincing arguments in favour of taking this step, said Genry Reznik, Chairman of Moscow City Bar.

Restoration of a good name and compensation for moral damage are the problems that can be successfully resolved within the framework of civil relations.

“There are absolutely no grounds to take an article on defamation back to the criminal legislation. Defamation in most countries has already been decriminalized and in those countries, where it formally exists in the Criminal Code, it is absolutely unapplied,” he was quoted by the Novye Izvestiya daily as saying.

 Moscow, July 9