26/11/2013 05:09 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 05:59 GMT

One Law to Rule Them All: Why Is Russia's 'Hooliganism' Law so Controversial?

I am from the West Country and in recent weeks the regional news has been covering bids for the release of several local people who were detained for their part in GreenPeace's protest at an oil rig in Russia's arctic north. Part of the confusion and terror for the families of the detainees has been the ambiguity of the charges brought against their relatives. Not only did they see the initial charge of piracy dropped but they were then faced with the possibility of a seven year jail sentence for their loved ones. Yet what exactly were the protestors accused of?

The Russian Criminal Code, Article 213 according to a blog*, states that 'Hooliganism' is "the flagrant violation of public order expressed by a clear disrespect for society." The article focuses on the linguistic difference between Russian and English with regard to the term "хулиган" (hooligan). Far from loveable rogues or overzealous football fans, the Russian understanding of hooligan is a genuine offender - a criminal with a premeditated desire to cause offence or harm. The severity of punishment for the crime is based on the nature of the damage caused with stern sentences for religious, racial or politically motivated infringements. It does not simply cover public order offences like drunk and disorderly behaviour and even takes into account crimes committed with a weapon.

While the article adequately covers the history and precise terms of this legislation it does not really explain how it could work in a real-life scenario for those living or visiting Russia - something that will be increasingly relevant for tourists with the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games and future football World Cup.

British visitors need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing "hooliganism" as a Russian version of British laws on hate crime. Offenders who cause harm based on religious or racial grounds deserve to be adequately punished but, in reality, prosecutors in Russia have a far more flexible law at their fingertips, one that has already proved to be highly controversial.

In theory, anything that can be construed as "disrespect for society" could come under the remit of this umbrella term. In modern Russia this could see a public expression of gay love (a violation of another controversial bill on so called 'gay propaganda') fall bizarrely into the same category of crime as assaulting an immigrant or trespassing on an oil rig as all seem to violate the predetermined social order. This law would be far less worrying for world leaders if Russia's social policies and standards were more in line with those typical to other countries and this is precisely where tourists may get caught out. From a cynical standpoint it seems like a law to fit all crimes.

More worrying still are the increases in the severity of sentencing for crimes that fall under the "hooliganism" tag which was originally introduced to the law in the Soviet Union of the 1960s. The Pussy Riot case is a prime example of the disproportionate nature of the punishment in the eyes of other nations due to the lengthy prison sentences facing the band members. If a group of feminist musicians in underwear performed a raunchy protest song in Westminster Abbey would they be looking at a lengthy period in jail? Certainly it would make national news, offend British Christians and break social standards but I doubt that judges would push for long-term imprisonment for those involved.

As far as I can tell the only solution to the current state of the law would be if politicians in Russia could more clearly define the range of crimes that fall under the "hooliganism" label so that visitors would have a more clear idea of what would constitute an infringement. The other solution that is frequently demanded by many people in the West is for a complete alteration of Russia's social standards and attitudes. While many, myself included, would like to see changes to how the Russian authorities relate LGBT issues and the right to protest it is also an offence to Russia as an independent nation to demand some kind of mass social upheaval. That kind of thing is really up to Russians themselves and to do so is to play into the hands of conservative politicians who still see other nations as trying to dilute and damage Russia at every opportunity.