AFP via Getty Images

Russia: End of the road for those seeking to exercise their right to protest


Authorities in Russia have eroded the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by using increasingly restrictive laws, and heavy-handed police tactics and criminal prosecutions to silence peaceful dissent — to the point where it is almost impossible for Russians to protest in any meaningful way, Amnesty International said in a new briefing today.

In “Russia: No Place for Protest”, the organization documents how the clampdown on peaceful protests, which began with the 2004 Federal Law on Assemblies, has accelerated in recent years via a succession of legislative amendments and their ever more selective and restrictive application. As a result, there now exists a plethora of legal restrictions on when, where, how, for what purpose and by whom the right to take to the streets can be exercised.

“Russian authorities have been curtailing the right to freedom of assembly with incredible persistence and inventiveness for years. No other issue has been given so much energy at every level of power. As a result, peaceful street protest has come to be seen as a crime by state officials – and an act of heroism by those Russians who still believe it is their right to exercise it,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher.

Peaceful street protest has come to be seen as a crime by state officials – and an act of heroism by those Russians who still believe it is their right to exercise it

Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

“The unlawful restrictions, requirements and harsh sanctions that Russian protesters face can only be described as Kafkaesque in their absurdity. It has taken the Russian authorities 16 years and 13 instances of parliamentary tinkering with legislation to make the right to freedom of peaceful assembly devoid of any genuine meaning.”

Nine out of the 13 major legislative amendments that have been used to curtail the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Russia have been introduced since 2014, as part of a crackdown on anti-government protests and human rights guaranteed by the international human rights law and Russia’s own Constitution.

Local authorities have followed the trend set by federal legislation and introduced new restrictions on peaceful assembly. These changes have emboldened both the police and criminal justice system, with police officers using increasingly heavy-handed tactics to silence peaceful protesters and the courts handing down severe penalties against them.

Legal restrictions on public assemblies

Requirements for protest have become lengthy and ever more restrictive under the law in its current form. For example, people pronounced guilty of “crimes against the constitutional order, state security, social safety or social order” or of protest-related administrative offences more than once in 12 consecutive months, are barred from organizing any public gathering.

Under federal-level regulations, assemblies cannot take place near courthouses, prisons, presidential residences, and since December 2020, emergency services. But regional legislation makes these restrictions even more drastic: in Kirov Oblast, for instance, the local law prohibits any gatherings near cultural, educational, medical or entertainment facilities, shopping centres, playgrounds and even public transport stops – in effect, virtually anywhere in towns. Spontaneous, that is unplanned, assemblies are universally forbidden, and are dispersed with excessive force when they occur.

Since December 2020, foreign citizens, foreign and international organizations as well as Russian nationals and NGOs labelled “foreign agents” by the authorities, are barred from financing public gatherings. In addition, assemblies of more than 500 participants must be organized and funded using a designated bank account or else they become illegal.

Organizers of almost all types of protests must submit prior notification to the authorities.

“The ‘prior notification’ procedures are routinely used by the authorities to limit, under a variety of pretexts, the number of participants in a gathering, move it to a sparsely populated part of a city, or ban it altogether. Moreover, under legislative amendments passed in 2021, the authorities have obtained the power to ‘recall’ permissions under vaguely worded and unsubstantiated pretexts such as a ‘real threat’ of ‘an emergency or a terrorist attack’,” said Oleg Kozlovsky.

The ‘prior notification’ procedures are routinely used by the authorities to limit, under a variety of pretexts, the number of participants in a gathering, move it to a sparsely populated part of a city, or ban it altogether 

Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

Hefty fines, administrative detention and criminal prosecution of peaceful protesters

Over the years, the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code have been drastically expanded with provisions restricting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the imposition of harsher sanctions for various purported “offences”.

Since 2011, the number of specific, legally defined violations of the Law on Assemblies has risen from three to 17. The maximum fines have soared from 2,000 rubles (US$60) in 2012 to 300,000 (US$4,000) in 2021, and administrative detention for up to 30 days was introduced as a possible penalty for 12 out of these 17 offences.

The single most repressive measure was the introduction in 2014 of criminal liability, with a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment, for repeated violations of the Law on Assemblies under the infamous “Dadin’s Article” 212.1 of the Criminal Code.

“Besides being criminalized for exercising their right to peaceful protest, detained protesters in Russia are also subjected to unfair, almost parody trials, sometimes taking as little as five minutes, with no key witnesses summoned and the truthfulness of police reports accepted unquestioningly,” said Oleg Kozlovsky.

The ‘prior notification’ procedures are routinely used by the authorities to limit, under a variety of pretexts, the number of participants in a gathering, move it to a sparsely populated part of a city, or ban it altogether 

Oleg Kozlovsky, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

Excessive use of force

The briefing also details the excessive use of force by police officers, who have been documented using martial arts techniques against protesters, battering them mercilessly with batons and, beginning this year, stunning them with electroshock weapons.

Despite widespread public outcry over cases of excessive use of force by the police, like the January 2021 case of Margarita Yudina – a peaceful protester who ended up in an intensive care unit after being kicked in the stomach by a riot police officer – the authorities either do not take action to investigate and bring suspected perpetrators to justice, or they manifestly derail such investigations, which reinforces the climate of impunity.

“It sends a clear signal to the police force that any excesses are tolerable, that violence is encouraged, and full impunity guaranteed,” said Oleg Kozlovsky.

Calls for comprehensive reform of legislation on assemblies

Amnesty International is calling for the Russian authorities to reform national legislation and practices to bring them in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations. The authorities must prohibit measures that change the aims or place of public gatherings, as well as the number of permitted participants, unless such decisions are taken in judicial proceedings.

The authorities must also respect spontaneous peaceful assemblies – which should be considered lawful, when submission of a notification within the period prescribed by law is impossible or impractical. 

“Next month’s parliamentary elections give Russia the opportunity to change its approach to commit to promotion and protection of human rights including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. We want to remind candidates for elections and future legislators that the right to protest peacefully is not something they can give or take away. It is something everyone is entitled to, and the government should respect, protect, and promote this and devote its energy to ensuring, not undermining this right,” said Oleg Kozlovsky.

Topics