MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian man who described local police as “scum” in an Internet posting was given a suspended jail sentence on Monday for extremism, prompting bloggers to warn of a crackdown on free speech online.
Savva Terentiev, a 28-year-old musician from Syktyvkar, 1,515 kilometres (940 miles) north of Moscow, wrote in a blog last year that the police force should be cleaned up by ceremonially burning officers twice a day in a town square.
Convicted on charges of “inciting hatred or enmity”, Terentiev was given a one-year suspended term on Monday, Russian news agencies reported.
Free speech campaigners said the ruling could create a dangerous precedent for free speech on the Internet, a vibrant forum for political debate in a country where the mainstream traditional media is deferential to authority.
“This was an absolutely unjustified verdict,” Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA centre in Moscow, a non-governmental group that monitors extremism, told Reuters. “Savva for sure wrote a rude comment ... but this verdict means it will be impossible to make rude comments about anybody.”
The verdict was discussed in Russian blogs on Monday. “I don’t know now if I should be writing here or not,” blogger Likershassi posted on one website.
“The fact that Terentiev got a conditional sentence is unimportant. What’s important is the precedent,” a blogger named Puffinus wrote.
Contacted by Reuters on Monday, Terentiev confirmed the sentence but said he was unable to make further comment.
The blog entry for which he was prosecuted has been removed from the Internet. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted him as saying in the post: “Those who become cops are scum,” and calling for officers to be put on a bonfire.
After the prosecution was launched, Terentiev wrote an open letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev protesting his innocence.
“It is our duty to take responsibility for words on the Internet but ... I did not call for the inflaming of social hatred towards the employees of the police department,” he wrote in the letter, posted at one of his sites, www.zasavva.ru.
Most Russians receive their news and information from television stations and newspapers controlled by the state or by businessmen with links to the Kremlin, with opposition voices confined largely to the Internet, talk radio and low-circulation publications.
Medvedev has said he views freedom of speech and a flourishing civil society as essential and that Russia should use a light touch when policing the Internet.
“Thank God we live in a free society,” Medvedev said last month in an interview with Reuters.
“It’s possible to go on to the Internet and get basically anything you want. In that regard, there are no problems of closed access to information in Russia today, there weren’t any yesterday and there won’t be any tomorrow,” he said.
Additional reporting by Aydar Buribaev; Editing by Catherine Evans