Russia: Opposition activists face escalating crackdown as presidential election nears

 

Russian authorities are systematically violating the rights of political activists through arbitrary arrests and detentions in a fierce crackdown ahead of the presidential elections on 18 March, Amnesty International said today.

Using a draconian law on public assemblies, authorities have deliberately targeted activists calling for an election boycott. As well as preventing public gatherings, the crackdown has seen many prominent opposition voices arbitrarily detained and charged with politically motivated offences.

“The Kremlin’s agenda is crystal clear – the loudest protesters and vote-boycotters must be cleared from the cities’ streets during the final stages of the presidential campaign,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. 

The Kremlin’s agenda is crystal clear – the loudest protesters and vote-boycotters must be cleared from the cities’ streets
Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International

“While various methods are used, the authorities usually turn to their favourite one: arbitrarily throwing dissenters behind bars.”

The idea of boycotting the ballot is championed by anti-corruption campaigner and prominent political activist Aleksei Navalny, who is barred from running for president on widely contested grounds. In recent weeks, the authorities have targeted his supporters through a range of punitive means, including arbitrary arrests and detention.

Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, was detained in a Moscow airport on his way to the city of Ufa on 22 February. Later that day, he was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention for allegedly organizing an “unauthorized gathering”.

The charge referred to the 28 January “voters’ strike” rallies which were held in more than 100 cities across Russia in support of Navalny’s idea of an election boycott. In Moscow, the city authorities arbitrarily refused Navalny permission to hold the rally in the city centre, and he and dozens of his supporters were briefly detained and later released. 

According to the police, Volkov’s role in the organization of the Moscow rally consisted of two re-tweets indirectly encouraging people to attend. One was of a tweet originally posted by Navalny during his detention at the demonstration in Moscow, while the other was a link to a live webcast of the events.

Navalny’s headquarters’ coordinator in Saint Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, was detained on 31 January for 30 days after the “voters’ strike” event in the city, which was also banned by the authorities. Initially he was held for calling for “an unauthorized gathering”, but was released on 2 March before being rearrested later the same day, this time for “participating” in the Saint Petersburg event. He was sentenced to 25 days in prison.

“Denis Mikhailov was not only arbitrarily deprived of his liberty, but deprived twice over. This repeated violation epitomizes the increasingly hostile situation peaceful protesters are facing ahead of the election,” said Denis Krivosheev.

“Denis Mikhailov was not only arbitrarily deprived of his liberty, but deprived twice over. This repeated violation epitomizes the increasingly hostile situation peaceful protesters are facing ahead of the election
Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International

At least two more prominent activists were arrested in Saint Petersburg in similar circumstances. The Saint Petersburg coordinator of the Open Russia movement, Andrei Pivovarov, was sentenced to 25 days of administrative detention on 28 February. A few days before his arrest, Pivovarov wrote on Facebook that he felt that he was under surveillance.

On 26 February, Artyom Goncharenko, a member of another opposition movement, Vesna (Spring), was given 25 days of administrative detention for displaying a giant inflatable duck in his apartment window when the protest rally was passing by. Since last year, yellow ducks have become a widely popular opposition symbol.

“This election campaign has been marred by widespread attacks against President Putin’s critics, and reprisals aimed at intimidating opposition activists into silence are becoming cruder as polling day approaches,” said Denis Krivosheev.

This election campaign has been marred by widespread attacks against President Putin’s critics
Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International

“All protesters and political activists arrested solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Background

In its latest public statement, Amnesty International outlines how constraints governing public assemblies, the abusive use of force by police, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, unfair trials, heavy fines and lengthy “administrative detention” are choking the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Russia.