Legal Interpretation, Lesson One: Learn to Read

Uncle Volodya says, "What do lawyers use for birth control? Their personalities!"

The Russian Flag, as seen by adults

Sigh. Did you ever wonder if some people are actually crazy, or if they might be just too bone-idle to do the work necessary to appear informed? I mean, how much effort does it take to read up on the subject, and make sure you know what you’re talking about before you open your piehole? I realize it’s simpler to just bleat “Russian evil (insert subject here)”, but doesn’t that ever get old? For instance, the shrieking headline, “Russia to Introduce Draconian Minority-Report Style Law“. The yammering from the Crazy Castle was even more dramatic.

Well, let’s take a look at the “Minority Report” association first, because quite a few sources have picked up on that angle. According to the plot synopsis, “The future is seen and the guilty punished before the crime has ever been committed. From a nexus deep within the Justice Department’s elite Pre-Crime unit, all the evidence to convict – from imagery alluding to the time, place and other details – is seen by “Pre-Cogs,” three psychic beings whose visions of murders have never been wrong.” For the record, “Minority Report” was a dead boring film that couldn’t be forgotten fast enough, so video-store owners are doubtless grateful to the Russian government for making unsuspecting video buffs interested in checking it out. Go ahead, but you’ll be sorry.

Is the Russian government planning to introduce a precognitive anti-murder subunit to the FSB? For now, let’s settle for “No” and some muffled, snorting laughter, and look at it in a bit more detail later.

Most sources that somehow intuit that ordinary people are going to be arbitrarily fined or jailed for stuff they might be thinking about doing don’t bother to supply any text of the actual law. You’re supposed to trust their legal interpretation skills. Let’s don’t. Instead, let’s take a look at a couple of sources that do discuss the actual law in a fair amount of detail. Here’s one. And here’s another. Reading these, it becomes clear fairly early on that you will have to actually do something before anyone from the FSB will visit you – simply thinking about crime isn’t going to cut it. Further, we see it is a “recognition and codification of existing informal practice”. The FSB could already suggest, offline, that you better straighten up and fly right if you didn’t want to “have an accident”. Now they have to do it within a legal framework, to which the automatic right of appeal is now legally attached. Also, some provisions were removed from existing law, such as the FSB’s right to publish the text of official individual warnings in the mass media without the accused individual’s permission. The requirement to appear in person before the FSB to receive a warning was also removed.

Here’s the meat of the law, the bit that’s causing all the flap and hullaballoo. 

“Disobeying the lawful orders or demands of a member of the FSB in connection with the execution of official duties, as well as interfering with the execution of official duties, is punishable by an administrative fine on citizens in the amount of 500-1,000 rubles or administrative arrest for a period up to fifteen days.”

Does that sound familiar? It should. “Disobeying the orders of an official in connection with the execution of his/her duties or interfering with the execution of his/her official duties” is codified in a familiar reference : Obstruction of Justice. Anyone disagree with that? Here’s the definition. Just for fun, let’s take a look at the potential penalty  for Obstruction of Justice in the United States, beacon of democracy and icon of freedom. Wow. A fine of not more than $250,000.00 and/or imprisonment for not more than 15 years. Granted, those are maximums. So are the Russian figures; 1000 rubles and/or 15 days.

This might be an appropriate moment to review the definition of “draconian”. Hmmmm…. “exceedingly harsh, very severe”. So, let’s be sure we understand this. A law that says you can be warned if the government believes your demonstrated behaviour constitutes a risk to state security, and if you obstruct officials in the legal conduct of their duties, you are liable to be fined a maximum $1000 rubles ($33.64 USD) and/or detained for a maximum of 15 days is exceedingly harsh, and very severe. What’s a law that says you can be fined as much as a quarter-million in the same currency, and/or detained for as much as 15 years? Extra-draconian?

Let’s recall that Russia has recently been the victim of terrorist attacks, which have taken Russian lives – most recently in the Moscow subway , earlier in a Moscow theatre and going back to 1995. When that happens, pressure is brought to bear on the government to do something, and a predictable result is the tightening of security. Do other countries do the same? Sure. Measures introduced in the PATRIOT Act in the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 granted the government the right to listen in on Americans’ telephone calls, read their email, search their homes or workplaces without their knowledge and while they were not present, read their library records and peek at what Internet sites they visited. Hey, that sounds draconian.

Tell you what; while we’re in the mood for discussing laws, let’s talk about one for journalists and the bloggers who cut and paste their stuff without doing any other research. It should say you’re not allowed to make shit up; if you do, you could be fined….oh, let’s say $33.64, and detained for up to 15 days. Sound fair?

This entry was posted in La Russophobe, Russia, Uncategorized, Vladimir Putin and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Legal Interpretation, Lesson One: Learn to Read

  1. Amazing post. I have bookmarked your site. I am looking forward to reading more

  2. marknesop says:

    Thanks; I appreciate the support!

  3. Alex("zed" one) says:

    Hi, Mark

    An interesting angle.. Few remarks to your analysis (if you don’t mind – just want to see if HTML formatting works in WordPress 🙂

    US law
    eg, from your wiki “To obtain a conviction under section 1503, the government must prove that there was a pending federal judicial proceeding, the defendant knew of the proceeding, and the defendant had corrupt intent to interfere with or attempted to interfere with the proceeding.

    Russian p.13 in

    ..при наличии достаточных и предварительно подтвержденных сведений .. и при отсутствии оснований для его привлечения к уголовной ответственности органы федеральной службы безопасности, предварительно уведомив об этом прокурора, могут объявлять этому лицу обязательное для исполнения официальное предостережение …Порядок внесения представления .. устанавливаются нормативными правовыми актами федерального органа исполнительной власти в области обеспечения безопасности. (i.e. by SVR)

    What is needed is just to “inform the prosecutor” and ignore him thereafter.

    The reference to Minority Report IMHO is valid, because in both cases an out-of-court procedure is used to punish on the basis of effectively an internal opinion of a non-judicial entity , moreover that the new law works specifically when a legal case cannot be started.

    • Alex("zed" one) says:

      ..apologies – probably, forgot to close the first tag – btw , feel free to delete 🙂

      • marknesop says:

        Hi, Alex; you might be on to something, but I’m afraid I still don’t see it. Where in the updated law does it say punishment can be awarded by a non-judicial entity? Is the intent to administer fines and/or detention directly by the FSB? I suppose that’s possible, like a traffic ticket, but if you want to dispute a traffic ticket it goes to court. Same here; the right of appeal is appended. I presume any such appeal would be conducted in open court.

        In any case, my main argument with the movie reference is it presumes the law will be administered on a basis of being able to read your mind – that you will be warned you are a threat to state security before you even know it yourself. It’s fairly clear that you must actually do something provocative before you will be so warned. Also, there’s no indication fines/detention are automatic; if you amend your associations or cease the behaviour that motivated the warning, it’s reasonable to assume the situation will go no further. Being warned is in and of itself not a punishment.

        Also, regarding U.S. law, the provisions of Obstruction of Justice do not require that the accused was aware of a pending federal judicial proceeding – lying to investigators is an example of Obstruction of Justice, which could and likely would take place before any charges were laid. The provisions of section 1503 are primarily directed at obstructive behaviours relating to a court action already in process, such as interfering with witnesses.

        • Alex ("zed"one) says:

          Hi, Mark

          FSB formally is (was) a Government service. Up until now it could not legally prosecute anyone. Your example was with the police, which does not prosecute – they present their opinion about eg. the speeding fine (which then in theory one can dispute) by issuing you a ticket. Under the new law, FSB not only presents their opinion who represents a danger, but also acquires a power of a court to decide internally on the validity of their own opinion. The subsequent right to appeal their verdict is the same as the right to appeal a court decision in a higher court.

          You could have argued the case for the new FSB law for example, by saying that it legitimizes the existing practice i.e. make de-jure out of de-facto (in fact, unchanged since USSR).

          The new law is here and the text I provided was taken directly from there.

          I understand you argument – that’s why I said “interesting” – but mind reading was not exactly why eg. Good Treaty used the Minority Report metaphor -it was extra-judicial powers awarded to a government agency and well, of course a catch-up turn-of phrase (btw – I found his report rather sympathetic to the Russians )

          If you want my opinion – I don’t have one. It is one of those cases which may easily turn either way – depending on the current state of FSB.

          BTW – I recommend reading the original book by Phillip K. Dick – it is very different from the cartoonish movie (about which I agree) and far more thought-provoking.

          In any case – thanks for an interesting post.

  4. marknesop says:

    Thanks for the info, Alex; I appreciate your analysis. Mark Galeotti of “In Moscow’s Shadows” (accessible from my blogroll) has an excellent appreciation of this law on his blog, and is of a similar opinion – de jure from de facto, but argues it represents a potential shaky step toward the rule of law, a viewpoint I support.

    A Good Treaty is one of the best Russia blogs available, in my opinion, and its author is starkly realistic in his appraisals of current events in Russia. If it reflects unfavourably on the country, he says so, but is never gratuitously mean or insulting. He’s a class act, as is Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion. There was some talk of A Good treaty teaming up in some online capacity with Mark Adomanis (also an extremely smart Russia-watching realist), formerly of True/Slant. It sounds like a good mix.

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