Organizers of peaceful demonstration blamed for violence in Moldova

The authorities in Moldova have threatened to arrest a group of civil society activists who organized a peaceful demonstration, blaming them for the rioting that followed the next day. The group had informed the authorities about the planned demonstration of several hundred people near government buildings in the capital city, Chişinău, on Monday – 10,000 turned up.

Amnesty International has said that the organizers were exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The organization said that, if arrested for organizing a peaceful assembly for which they had notified the authorities, Amnesty International will consider them to be prisoners of conscience.

“The Moldovan authorities are obliged to protect the right to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. “They must distinguish carefully between those who are suspected of having committed criminal acts and those who have exercised their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

The group of activists – consisting of Elena Zgardan, Natalia Morari, Artur Gurãu, Ion Ţǎrnǎ, Ghenadie and Oleg Brega, and others – intended to hold a “day of mourning” for the results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. They announced the vigil on social networking sites, by texting on mobile phones and by word of mouth.

Natalia Morari told Amnesty International that they expected no more than 300 young people to come and were amazed when so many joined them on Monday, including the leaders of all major opposition parties.

The organizers of the vigil asked everybody to leave at 8pm, but the political leaders present continued speaking to the crowd until 8.30. They then announced that there would be a meeting at 10am the following morning, before dispersing peacefully.

As many as 15,000 people turned up the next day at Great National Assembly square and marched from there to the presidential and parliamentary buildings. By midday, the demonstrations had turned violent. Following an initially peaceful stand-off between police and protestors on the steps of both buildings, the crowd began to push against the police line.

Amnesty International staff witnessed objects being thrown by the crowd at the presidential building, which was being guarded by riot police, including plastic and glass bottles, stones, eggs, bits of pavement and masonry.

There are allegations that the violence was provoked by plain-clothed officers in the crowd. Despite a significant presence, riot police eventually retreated completely and demonstrators stormed both buildings. Offices were looted, fires were started and furniture and documents were thrown from windows. Both buildings remained mostly unguarded for the rest of the day.   

The General Prosecutor’s office published a press release on Tuesday announcing that the organizers and participants of the “day of mourning” had violated the provisions of the law on assemblies by failing to respect public order, involving minors, encouraging drunkenness and damaging public transport. The press release named Ghenadie Brega.

On Wednesday, Natalia Morari and Oleg Brega heard a report that they had been accused of attempting to overthrow the state. These accusations have not been confirmed, but the General Prosecutor’s office informed a friend of Oleg and Ghenadie Bregha that a general case had been opened for attempted overthrow of the state.

Amnesty International has received reports of excessive use of force by police after the riots. Valentina Cusnir, an independent member of parliament, was near the main street of Chişinău at about midnight on Tuesday. She told Amnesty International that she witnessed police beating up to five young people who had attempted to overturn a kiosk.

She described how several policemen kicked one man “as if they were playing football”. She witnessed further beatings and saw how police officers fired guns into the air to intimidate the demonstrators.

Valentina Cusnir reported that she was abused by a police officer who shouted “Take her too, the bitch!” He grabbed her by the arms and, when she resisted, the police officer pushed her to the ground and dragged her for about 200m before letting her go. She suffered bruises and swelling on her arms and back and possible concussion when she hit her head on the pavement.

“Amnesty International understands the police have a responsibility to protect property and to guarantee public order,” said Nicola Duckworth. “However, the organization urges the authorities to independently and thoroughly investigate reports of use of excessive force by police. Detainees should also be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offence or released and granted access to lawyers, doctors, and to have their families informed about their detention.”