European Court to decide whether conviction of Russian journalist for defamation and incitement of hatred violated freedom of expression

15 March 2017

On 15 March 2017, the European Court of Human Rights requested observations from the Russian Government on a case regarding a political journalist and activist, who was convicted and sentenced to jail on charges of defamation and incitement of hatred for his critical public statements about the Government. The applicant, Irek Minzakievich Murtazin, is represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and Memorial Human Rights Centre (Moscow).

Mr. Murtazin is a well-known public activist and journalist, who has spoken out against the Russian authorities, particularly in the Republic of Tatarstan. In July 2007 Mr. Murtazin published a book, “Mintimer Shaimiyev: the Last President of Tatarstan”, in which he expresses his view on the problems in Tatarstan’s political system. He reiterated his criticisms of the president’s policies, corruption in public authorities and the lack of democracy in the region, in newspaper articles and his blog. On 12 September 2008 Mr. Murtazin wrote a blog post in which he announced that he had received information that Mr. Shaimiyev had died while on holiday in Turkey. This post was widely discussed in the media and in public; however the information later turned out to be false.

On 19 September 2008 a criminal investigation was opened against Mr. Murtazin in connection with his blog post on the president’s death: Mr Shaimyev asserted that dissemination of information about his alleged death on the internet constituted a crime. On 10 December 2008 Mr. Murtazin was officially charged with dissemination of defamatory information and breach of privacy based on his blog post and book. He was later also charged with incitement of hatred based on basis of belonging to a social group.

During his trial in July 2009 Mr. Murtazin’s request that one of the judges recuse himself, since Mr. Murtazin had a bad relationship with the judge’s daughter, was denied. Mr. Murtazin also requested to question certain prosecution experts: although the request was granted, the experts did not attend the hearings. On 24 November 2009, Mr. Murtazin was found guilty of defamation and incitement of hatred, and was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment. The decision was upheld after appeal.

In his application before the European Court, Mr. Murtazin argues that the criminal proceedings against him violated his right to freedom of expression, under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). He further argues that the court proceedings, as outlined above, violated his right to a fair trial, under Article 6 ECHR. The Government must respond to the European Court’s communication of the Murtazin case by 5 July 2017, following which the applicants will be invited to submit their comments on the Government’s response.

The case highlights the shrinking space for critical voices in Russia, both on a national and regional level. EHRAC is also litigating another Russian defamation case, which concerns charges brought against Memorial Human Rights Centre and its Chair Oleg Orlov, regarding a statement on Memorial’s website implicating Ramzan Kadyrov (President of the Chechen Republic) in Natalia Estemirova’s murder.