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Atheist Blogger Faces Three And A Half Years In Prison For Playing 'Pokémon Go' In Russian Church

The 22-year-old was charged with inciting religious hatred.

02/05/2017 4:32 AM IST | Updated 02/05/2017 4:32 AM IST
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Blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky was accused of extremism and offending religious believers.

Russian blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky has been under house arrest since last summer, when he was taken into custody for playing “Pokémon Go” inside a historic Russian Orthodox church. 

On Friday, Russian prosecutors requested a sentence of three and a half years in prison for the 22-year-old who they accused of inciting religious hatred.

The blogger, who also started an atheist magazine in 2016 according to The Moscow Times, uploaded a video to YouTube last August showing himself wandering the rooms of the Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg in search of Pokémon on the augmented reality game. In the beginning of the video, Sokolovsky refers to news reports warning players against playing the game in churches. 

“How can one offend by entering a church with a smartphone?” the blogger said in the video, according to a translation by The Guardian. “I decided to just catch some Pokemon in church because, why not? I believe it’s both safe and not prohibited by law. Let’s go.”

Sokolovsky ended the video by joking: “You know, I didn’t catch the rarest Pokémon that you could find there — Jesus. They said it doesn’t even exist, so I’m not really surprised.”

Russian authorities arrested Sokolovsky several weeks after he posted the video and accused him of three offenses based on Russia’s criminal code, including inciting hatred, offending religious believers, and illegally carrying equipment for covert filming.

Amnesty International responded to the blogger’s arrest in September by calling it a “farcical attack on freedom of expression” and saying Sokolovsky was “a prisoner of conscience.”

Sokolovsky reacted to the prosecutors’ recommended sentence on Friday with dismay, according to Russian outlet Meduza. “I may be an idiot, but I am by no means an extremist,” he said in his final court statement.

A local branch of the Ministry of the Interior reportedly discovered the blogger’s YouTube video through its “web monitoring” program and sent it to the regional police Centre for Combating Extremism, according to Amnesty.

Russia’s anti-extremism laws have been accused of unfairly targeting individuals and religious groups for speaking openly about their beliefs. According to a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “The major threat to religious freedom remains the much-amended Russian anti-extremism law, which defines extremism in a religious context and does not require the threat or use of violence.”

The country’s Supreme Court recently designated the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization. Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and other religious minorities in the country have also come under intense scrutiny under Russian anti-extremism laws that ban proselytizing and curtail the dissemination of religious literature.

These same laws were used to label videos of performances by punk band Pussy Riot as extremist materials in 2012.

A judge is expected to issue the verdict in Sokolovsky’s case by May 11, according to The Associated Press.

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