Mari National Activists Prosecuted for Exercising Freedom of Expression
Vienna/Moscow 1 September 2006.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) are concerned that two Mari national activists have been prosecuted merely for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression in the Russian Republic of Mari El, where the Finno-Ugric Mari people constitutes the titular nationality.
A Mari religious leader, Vitaly Tanakov, who earlier this year published a brochure about the peculiarities of the Mari people and its religious beliefs, has been charged with “incitement to ethnic, racial or religious enmity” and “abasement of human dignity on the basis of religion, national or racial affiliation” under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code.
Another Mari activist, Nina Maksimova, who chairs the organization Mari Ushem, faces similar charges for helping to distribute the brochure at concerts and other cultural events. If the two activists are found guilty, they could be sentenced to heavy fines or up to four years’ of imprisonment.
The IHF and the MHG believe that the two criminal cases are politically motivated and represent an attempt to punish Tanakov and Maksimova for their involvement in the Mari national movement of Mari El.
In recent years, members of this movement have faced growing harassment because of their efforts to promote the rights and the interests of the Mari people and to communicate their concerns about official minority policies. Members of the movement have, inter alia, been ridiculed and denigrated in state-controlled media and subject to intimidation, arrest, prosecution, dismissal and violent attacks.(1)
Legal experts from the local human rights organizations Man and Law and AGORA, who carefully analyzed the brochure authored by Tanakov, unequivocally concluded that there is nothing in the publication that would justify prosecution under Criminal Code article 282.
Thus, the criminal charges brought against Tanakov and Maksimova are in apparent violation of international human rights standards protecting the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.(2) The IHF and the MHG are also concerned that the cases against the two activists are part of a broader trend in Russia of abusing anti-incitement legislation to persecute civil society activists, journalists and others considered politically threatening.(3)
A hearing in the two cases was initially scheduled for 30 August 2006 but has been postponed until 7 September 2006 following an appeal from the defendants to be permitted to use the services of legal counsel of their own choosing instead of those of state-appointed lawyers.
The IHF and the MHG call on the authorities of the Republic of Mari El to immediately drop the charges against Vitaly Tanakov and Nina Maksimova and to respect their right to promote the culture and traditions of the Mari people in peaceful and legitimate ways, including by exercising their internationally protected right to freedom of expression.
If the legal proceedings against Tanakov and Maksimova are continued, the two activists should be granted an open and fair trial and granted an effective opportunity to challenge the charges against them.
For more information:
Vienna: Henriette Schroeder, IHF Press Officer, +43-1-408 88 22, +43-676-725 4829
Moscow: Irina Sergeeva, MHG Project Coordinator, +7-495-207 0769
A press release published by Man and Law on 28 August 2006 (in Russian) is attached.
1) For more information, see the joint IHF and Moscow Helsinki Group report, The Human Rights Situation of the Mari Minority of the Republic of Mari El from February 2006.
The report is available in English and Russian at
A Finnish summary can also be found at the IHF website.
2) Compare article 10 of the European Convention for Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant for Political and Civil Rights. The Russian Federation is a party to both of these treaties.
3) For example, in February 2006, a Nizhny Novgorod court applied article 282 of the Criminal Code to convict a human rights activist involved in efforts to highlight human rights violations committed in the context of the conflict in Chechnya.
The activist, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, who is executive director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence. For more information about this case, see the chapter on the Russian Federation in IHF, Human Rights in the OSCE Region: Report 2006 (Events of 2005), at