Memes Mocking Religion Have Student Facing Five Years in Prison

Russian police officer stands on duty. Authorities in the Siberian city of Barnaul are charging a teenager with a crime punishable with up to 5 years in prison, for reposting a meme. Getty Images

A Russian teenager could face up to five years in prison for posting memes on social media, including one image that likened the return of a popular TV character to Jesus Christ.

Daniil Markin, 19, first spoke out about the case against him last month, in solidarity with Maria Motuznaya, another Russian facing a legal punishment for posting memes such as one featuring nuns smoking with the caption "quickly, while God isn't looking."

Motuznaya's case caused shock in Russia this summer. Markin came forward in a Facebook post saying he had been subjected to a similar investigation over the past year.

"It has been a year since they have been trying to get me locked up for posting a picture on VKontakte," he wrote in a Facebook post, referring to the popular Russian social media network. "A year since all of my bank accounts were blocked. A year since my phone and the phones of all of my family have been regularly eavesdropped on by the authorities."

The teenager says the searches of his home and specifically every meme he had saved on his computer over the past few years, was increasingly stressful and although a court is yet to convict him officially, he said he already feels a prisoner.

"I cannot even imagine the damage my health has suffered during this hellish year. Russia is slowly, but surely, killing me like an unwanted citizen."

The film student from the Siberian city of Barnaul is charged with "inciting hatred" against religious believers with his memes, according to Radio Free Europe, which obtained the documents about his case.

The offending memes include a picture John Snow from the popular TV series Game of Thrones, with the caption "John Snow is risen! Truly he is risen!" which is the customary Easter greeting in Russia, referring to Jesus.

Another features a grid of various portrayals of Jesus, with the caption "Jesus looks different in different cultures," except one of the pictures appears to show exiled Russian social media entrepreneur Pavel Durov.

"I confessed to having saved those [memes], but I didn't mean to offend anyone," Markin told Human Rights Watch, which is campaigning against his possible imprisonment. Markin's case will be resolved in court and a verdict is expected this fall.

Besides Markin and Motuznaya, other Russians have become the focus of investigation for online activity that authorities perceived as offensive to the church.

Ruslan Sokolovsky also faced the threat of a five-year jail term for playing the augmented reality game Pokemon Go on his smartphone in church in 2016. Authorities in his city of Yekaterinburg arrested him on the basis of a video he uploaded online, showing him playing in church. After a public outcry to release him, he received a three year suspended sentence last year.