Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

Russia: Religious insult laws a threat to free expression

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 10 June 2013
Cite as Article 19, Russia: Religious insult laws a threat to free expression, 10 June 2013, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
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ARTICLE 19 urges politicians to reject plans that will make the 'insult of religious beliefs and feelings' a criminal offence in Russia.

Proposals that will be considered by the State Duma tomorrow (11 June 2013) if adopted, will create a prohibition of the defamation of religions in violation of international human rights standards, and in particular in relation to the right to freedom of expression.

The amendments are widely seen to be a reaction to the Pussy Riot case, in which members of the group performed a 'punk prayer' inside a Moscow cathedral to protest about the relationship between President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

'At international level there is a growing consensus that prohibitions on defamation of religions violate freedom of expression standards, and can stifle dissent and criticism from religious believers, religious minorities and non-believers alike.', stated Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. 'Russian lawmakers should re-consider and reject these amendments. Given the lack of clarity, overbroad legal definitions in combination with the current political climate in Russia, there is a distinct likelihood of a selective and discriminatory application of the law'.

Politicians had initially intended to create new legal provisions, but during a second reading of proposed legislation on 21 May 2013 - they decided that they would instead make a series of amendments to existing legislation, including to Article 148 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and Articles 3.5 and 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offences. The State Duma will tomorrow (11 June 2013) discuss the proposed amendments again and are expected to formally adopt the changes.

The proposed amendments are widely regarded as an attempt by the Russian government to legally entrench 'traditional values' and strengthen the position of religious believers, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church.

ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call on the State Duma to reject this law in its entirety and opposes the introduction of 'defamation of religions' into Russian law.

International human rights standards do not protect religions per se, but rather individuals and groups from discrimination and harassment on the basis of their religion or ethnicity. Belief systems themselves should not be exempt from debate, commentary or even sharp criticism, whether internal or external. Moreover, there is evidence that laws on "defamation of religions" have a discriminatory impact in practice.


Earlier this year, ARTICLE 19 provided a legal analysis of the initial proposals considered by the State Duma to introduce legislation 'countering insult of religious beliefs and feelings'. This would have introduced sentences of up to five years imprisonment or fines of up to 500,000 RUB (10,609 GBP) for 'insult of religious beliefs and feelings'.

The current proposal includes minor changes to the original text, including:

The maximum prison sentence would now be three years;

An amendment to the Criminal Code will be included as part of the current Article 148 (Violations of the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion) instead of the originally proposed new provision 243.1 (Insulting Religious Beliefs and Feelings);

Amendments to Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code will require that the 'public desecration' of religious items should be intentional;

The listed items that can be 'desecrated' under Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code is expanded;

The punitive measures available under Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code are expanded.

ARTICLE 19 finds that the changes introduced are inadequate and have failed to rectify the fact that this law pursues an illegitimate aim. By introducing a prohibition of 'defamation of religions', Russian law may considerably restrict public discourse on religious issues.

ARTICLE 19 reiterates that the legal amendments fail to meet international human rights standards; and if adopted, will introduce illegitimate restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

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Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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