The right to protest is in danger of being lost in Russia as the clamp down on government critics and dissenting voices has intensified in recent months, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
“The uncompromising reaction to the spate of demonstrations in Moscow in February and March this year has shown just how difficult and dangerous it has become to organise and participate in protests. The right to freedom of assembly has long been limited in Russia, but it is now in danger of being lost altogether,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director.
The stringently applied draconian legislation means that:
All public gatherings must be authorized in advance, unless held in remote designated areas. Failure to comply leads to heavy fines for organizers and participants. Those accused of resisting police face up to 15 days of detention;
Assemblies organised by those with critical, dissenting or minority views are almost always denied approval in requested locations;
Only single-person pickets are allowed to take place without authorisation and even these have been targeted arbitrarily in recent months;
Spontaneous assemblies are automatically considered to be unlawful and are routinely dispersed. Peaceful participants risk arbitrary arrest and the likelihood of being fined or briefly detained.
The report documents the arbitrary banning of protests, the violent dispersal and arbitrary arrest of demonstrators, and the failure of the courts to uphold the right to freedom of assembly.
After a lull in protest activity following the crushing of the Bolotnaya Square protest in May 2012, Amnesty International documented 10 protest events in February and March this year in Moscow; of these, at least seven were dispersed by police who detained over a thousand peaceful protesters. Hundreds were heavily fined and over dozen a sentenced to several days of detention in unfair trials.
New laws adopted in 2012 are also being used to break up spontaneous assemblies and prevent anti-government protests in popular areas.
On several occasions, counter-demonstrators have been allowed to intimidate and even physically attack protesters prior to their dispersal. Likewise law enforcement officials have enjoyed near-total impunity for the frequent use of abusive force.
During 2013 and early 2014, all of the public actions planned by Amnesty International activists in popular areas of Moscow were denied authorization. The alternative locations suggested by the authorities were in remote and desolate parks.
Meanwhile, pro-government demonstrations are frequently allowed to proceed in locations denied to dissenting voices.
An independent group conducted a survey of the footfall in the different locations. Those requested by Amnesty International and others groups had an average number of passers-by ranging between 788 and 5374 per hour. However the alternative locations proposed by the authorities had no more than 34.
Russian courts have repeatedly failed to protect the right to freedom of assembly. They have only very rarely declared decisions to ban protests unlawful, and never done so in time to ensure they can go ahead.
Reduced procedural guarantees in administrative cases and the reluctance of many judges hearing them to scrutinise police claims properly, if at all, has resulted in hundreds being fined and several detained in unfair trials.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the Russian authorities are bent on achieving complete control over the use of public space and the views that can be communicated and expressed in it – and that Russia’s courts are incapable or unwilling to resist this,” said Denis Krivosheev.
“With protests banned, critical NGOs being forced to close and independent media being muzzled, dissent is increasingly being confined to the privacy of people’s homes. This is worrying for the future, and has ominous echoes of Russia’s not so distant past.”
In the two years since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, the Russian authorities have waged a sustained attack on rights and freedoms in an apparent attempt to achieve complete control of the use of public space and the views that can be communicated and expressed in it. This report focuses specifically on the freedom of peaceful assembly, in respect of which the anti-Putin protest on Bolotnaya Square 6 May 2012 marked a significant turning point.