Another Russian Faces Criminal Probe Over Social-Media Memes

Add salty jokes about the Russian patriarch's luxury watch to the list of memes that could potentially lead to criminal prosecution in Russia.

A Siberian man is under criminal investigation not only for racially and politically charged images he allegedly posted on social media, but also for one lampooning Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for wearing a pricey wristwatch that was later clumsily airbrushed out of an official church photograph.

Andrei Shasherin, 38, told RFE/RL by telephone on August 3 that he is suspected of hate speech and public actions aimed at "insulting believers' religious sensibilities" in connection with the images posted on the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte.

His public disclosure of the probe this week came after two fellow residents of Barnaul, 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow, drew nationwide attention by revealing that they faced charges over satirical memes they posted on their respective VKontakte accounts.

The revelation of the Barnaul cases has heightened criticism of an escalating Russian crackdown on online speech in recent years that free-speech advocates say authorities are using to stifle dissenting voices and boost conviction rates..

In one case, 19-year-old Daniil Markin faces up to five years in prison for disseminating hate speech with memes lampooning religion, including one likening the Jon Snow character from the hit HBO show Game Of Thrones to Jesus.

In another, 23-year-old Maria Motuznaya faces up to five years in prison on hate-speech charges for VKontakte memes that authorities say are racist and denigrate religion -- including Russian Orthodoxy.

'Psychological Pressure And Brow-Beating'

Shasherin, who says he is married and has a 5-year-old son, told RFE/RL that police raided his apartment at 6 a.m. on March 5 and kept him in handcuffs for six hours at the police station.

He says police pressured him and threatened that he would go to prison if "I wouldn't sign a document saying I was the one who disseminated the images with the malicious intent of insulting people in various ways."

Shasherin said he signed the document, without the presence of a lawyer, after two hours of "psychological pressure and brow-beating" by police, but that he recanted his testimony shortly thereafter.

"The police can't guarantee that that court decision will be a fine or something else. That's the trick. They have a different job. Their job is to get the case to court," he told RFE/RL.

The hate-speech charge that Shasherin says he is suspected of is punishable by up to five years in prison, while the law on publicly insulting believers' sensibilities can lead to imprisonment of up to one year.

Shasherin has also been placed on the list of "terrorists and extremists" maintained by Russia's Federal Financial Monitoring Service, cutting off his access to his bank accounts.

Lyudmila Ryazantseva, a spokeswoman with the Russian Investigative Committee in the Altai region, confirmed in a telephone interview with RFE/RL that Shasherin was under criminal investigation but said she could not immediately provide details about the case.

Ryazantseva, however, pushed back against Shashaerin's claim that he was pressured into signing a confession.

"I don't think anyone pressured him," she said.

'Do You Have The Time?'

It was not immediately clear specifically which images Shasherin might be indicted for at the conclusion of the investigation. But in an analysis commissioned by regional investigators in his case, experts concluded that several of the 36 images they examined -- some of which featured Nazi imagery and allusions -- denigrated others based on race and religion.

The groups disparaged in these images included natives of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Muslims, ethnic Russians, Russian citizens, communists, and Roma, according to the analysis, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL.

The experts also concluded that the image skewering Patriarch Kirill over the luxury 30,000-euro Breguet watch he was photographed wearing "violates the norms of religious ethics" with its use of profanity.

The cartoon in question features a replica of a 2009 photograph of Kirill wearing the watch, which was later airbrushed out. The doctored photo was published on the Russian Orthodox Church's website in 2012, but whoever manipulated the image forgot to erase the reflection of the timepiece on the polished table he was sitting at.

In the cartoon included in Shasherin's case, Jesus is seen asking Kirill over his shoulder: "Do you have the time?" Kirill responds: "Jesus, f**k off."

The analysis, which acknowledged the reference to the watch scandal, concluded that it was "unacceptable" to attribute such words to a "person who heads one of the Orthodox autocephalous churches, whose primary goal is the preservation of the Orthodox tradition of the worship of Jesus Christ."

Shasherin told RFE/RL that he doubts the objectivity of the expert analysis commissioned by the investigation, but that his efforts to secure a second analysis in the case have been rebuffed by the court.

While there have been Russians convicted and imprisoned for social-media posts deemed hate speech, no one has been imprisoned for publicly insulting religious believers' sensibilities since President Vladimir Putin signed the criminal statute into law in 2013.

The handful of convictions under the law -- including that of Ruslan Sokolovsky, who was convicted last year in part for a video showing him playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox Church -- have resulted in either fines or suspended sentences.

The law was part of what was widely seen as an effort by Putin to shore up support from conservative elements in Russian society after his return to the Kremlin in 2012 following his four-year stint as prime minister.