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Russia Jails Atheist Blogger for Playing Pokemon Go in Cathedral

Russian atheist blogger and YouTube star Ruslan Sokolovsky, who is either 21 or 22 years old according to various sources, has gotten away with some provocative stunts during his career, but apparently catching Pokemon Go inside a cathedral has crossed the line.

According to the Moscow TimesSokolovsky’s home was raided on September 3rd, and he was put behind bars over an August 11 YouTube video that showed him strolling around the Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, playing Pokemon Go on his iPhone. He indicated at the beginning of the video that he was deliberately acting in defiance of warnings that playing Pokemon Go in a church could result in a jail sentence.

He indicated at the beginning of the video that he was deliberately acting in defiance of warnings that playing Pokemon Go in a church could result in a jail sentence.

The authorities portrayed Sokolovsky’s Pokemon video as more of a straw breaking the camel’s back than a felonious offense, in and of itself. He was, however, charged with felony counts of “inciting hatred against a social group” and “offending religious sensitivities”:

On Sept. 5, apparently trying to manage public backlash, Nina Pelevina, the deputy press secretary for the Sverdlovsk region’s Investigative Committee, published an uncharacteristically detailed statement about Sokolovsky’s case, specifying that he is being prosecuted for the content of his YouTube video (not the mere fact that he played Pokemon Go in a church), as well as the content of other videos he’s uploaded to the Internet. Police point out that Sokolovsky added “ironic” and “obscene” comments to the narration of the video he filmed inside the Church of All Saints.

The press release also states that investigators pushed for an arrest because Sokolovsky was living in Yekaterinburg without the necessary registration, in an apartment not rented in his name, without any formal employment. Small amounts of illegal drugs were also discovered in Sokolovsky’s possession when he was detained, “negatively characterizing the young man’s lifestyle.”

The Moscow Times goes on to explain that the “religious sensitivities” law invoked against Sokolovsky was inaugurated after the rock group Pussy Riot’s 2013 concert inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, and several other people have been convicted over the ensuing three years. Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot expressed support for Sokolovsky on Twitter shortly after his arrest. Their second tweet in his defense was a bit more colorful.

The hate-speech charges against Sokolovsky are more serious, following older laws that are much more widely prosecuted. He could be facing up to five years in prison.

On a positive note, he has both the mayor of Yekaterinburg and the Russian Orthodox Church calling for his release. A potential sticking point in any release deal is the blogger’s refusal to admit he committed a crime.

The mayor had to convince the church to go easy on Sokolovsky. Gizmodo quotes church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda initially denouncing him by saying, “It is clear that Mr. Sokolovsky was not a casual passerby, who in a fit of gaming passion went into the temple, but rather a well-known young blogger in the city, who works in the style of Charlie Hebdo.

A danger of speech codes is illustrated by the manner in which police were informed of Sokolovsky’s Pokemon video: a news agency called URA.ru claims its lawyers told it to turn him over to the police after it ran a story on his YouTube videos because it was necessary for the agency to “distance itself” from his remarks.

Authoritarianism is always contagious in this manner; people cooperate because they are afraid to be accused of passive complicity. This is especially true of anti-free-speech regimes since discussing a forbidden subject can itself be interpreted as a speech code violation.

The UK Guardian reports the Pokemon video has drawn over 900,000 views.

“Since his arrest, there have been reports that activists in St Petersburg were planning to catch Pokémon in the Kazan Cathedral. Lawyer Arkady Chaplygin, member of the Russian branch of the Progress party, posted on Russian social media site VKontakte urging others to join him in playing Pokémon to protest Sokolovsky’s arrest,” the Guardian writes.

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