Human rights campaigners from Amnesty International have spoken out against the conviction of a Russian YouTuber who was handed a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence for filming himself playing Pokémon Go, a popular mobile game, while inside a historic church building last year.
Ruslan Sokolovsky, 22, was also given 160 hours of community service and ordered not to film in public places. He was previously arrested in September 2016 under controversial charges of blasphemy and his case resulted in significant interest from human rights campaigners.
In a statement, Amnesty said Russian authorities "blatantly misused the criminal justice system, including draconian anti-extremist legislation, in a show trial" against the online blogger.
"With Sokolovsky's conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country's grotesque 'blasphemy' law," said Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International Russia, in a statement released this week (11 May).
The month prior to his detention, on 11 August, Sokolovsky posted a video to YouTube showing him walking into Yekaterinburg's Church of All Saints while playing the augmented reality (AR) game. The church was built on the site of a house where Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his family were shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
"How can one offend by entering a church with a smartphone?" Sokolovsky said at the time, adding that Jesus was the "rarest Pokémon." He published the video after Russian authorities warned there could be legal action taken against those using smartphones in church services.
The video currently has racked up over 9.1 million views on YouTube – but they may not be there for long. Russian judge Yekaterina Shoponyak said the videos should be removed and warned Sokolovsky could face real prison time should he break the law within three years.
Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda previously claimed Sokolovsky was not arrested for playing Pokémon Go but instead for making a video provocative to the religious.
"It is clear that Mr Sokolovsky was not a casual passer-by, 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," Legoyda wrote in a Facebook post last year.
Now, Sokolovsky has been convicted under Article 282 (incitement of hatred or enmity and humiliation of human dignity) and Article 148 (violation of the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Amnesty's Nikitin added: "The sentencing of Ruslan Sokolovsky has already resulted in worrying self-censorship by media outlets. The latest example is the TV cable network 2x2, which banned an episode of the popular US cartoon 'The Simpsons' which satirised the Pokémon Go church incident."
"Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia – especially coming after the authorities only last month banned Jehovah's Witnesses. This is another assault on freedom of expression."