One year ahead of the Presidential elections, severe crackdown on freedom of assembly is underway in Russia

Press release
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Moscow-Paris. Far from the international spotlights, repression against peaceful demonstrators in Russia continues, taking new level since the end of March when 1500 protesters were detained across the country. During last weeks, multiple mass detentions were reported, including during April 29 protests titled "Fed up" ("Nadoel") and during May 1st demonstrations. Yet the new politically motivated criminal process could turn into the biggest criminal prosecution of peaceful demonstrators in modern Russia.

On 26 March 2017, during arrests and in transit to police stations, many participants were reported to have been ill-treated by police officers. OVD-Info programme that tracks protest related detentions became aware of the facts of torture, intimidation and pressure directly from individuals released from detention, OVD-Info hotline users, video materials, accounts of eyewitnesses, independent observers and media representatives.

These reports assert that those detained are being ill-treated in order to extract information potentially serving as a basis for opening criminal cases against protest participants. On the evening of 26 March, the authorities announced the initiation of a criminal case on charges of using violence against a representative of authority, including encroaching on life, punishable up to life imprisonment. Four people have been arrested in Moscow so far, their identities have been held secret from the public for more than two weeks until mid-April.

"Denying citizens the right to peaceful assembly goes together with other abuses stripping the country of its last democratic principles"

FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos

According to OVD-Info programme, at least 145 investigators are working on criminal cases against participants of March 2017 protests in Moscow suggesting that a wave of arrests should be soon expected. Among the investigators is Major General Rustam Gabdulin who has led the investigation of "Bolotnaya square cases". The latter cases resulted in still ongoing criminal prosecution and imprisonment of dozens of demonstrators on Bolotnaya square in Moscow in May 2012 and a full-fledged attack on civil society.

Moreover, political prisoners in "Bolotnaya square cases" still in detention were reported to recently have faced increased pressure from the authorities. Three weeks ago, Ivan Nepomniashih, sentenced to two and a half years for participating in protests on Bolotnaya square, was placed in solitary confinement, severely beaten and denied access to lawyer. On 17 April 2017, house arrest of Dmitry Buchenkov was prolonged for another six months in the framework of a criminal case opened against him in 2016. Previously, Buchenkov spent more than a year in a pre-trial detention center; he maintains he was not in Moscow on the day of demonstrations.

While March 2017 protests were almost not covered by the national media, the reaction of the authorities at various occasions featured various accusations of citizens who exercised their constitutional right of freedom of assembly. Organisers of massive protests were called provocators, participants were claimed to have been paid for taking part in the demonstrations.

Such a discourse and authorities’ inaction to the claims of police ill-treatment contribute to the atmosphere of impunity for violence against dissenting citizens. Protest participants, independent journalists, opposition members are being attacked with unidentified toxic compounds, dangerous or degrading substances, such as excrements, while property damage and arsons have also been recently reported. In one of the latest episodes, opposition politician and organiser of 26 March protests Alexei Navalny was attacked with brilliant green on 27 April and as a result had to be performed an eye surgery since brilliant green leads to serious injuries in contact with the eyes.

Due to unprecedented participation of youth in ongoing demonstrations, parents, school and university staff continue undergoing persecution, intimidation and harassment, up to dismissals of students who were noticed at the demonstrations.

"Participants of any peaceful protest with legitimate demands to the authorities and organised independently thereof, may be illegally detained, placed in conditions amounting to ill-treatment and torture and sentenced for an administrative offence in a trial marred by procedural irregularities. They run a risk of criminal prosecution on trumped up charges and hence a long-term imprisonment based on un unfair trial."

Aleksandr Cherkasov, Chairman of the Board of the Human Rights Centre "Memorial"

Our organisations remind that in Russia today, stand-alone protests are criminalised, women were violently detained during a peaceful march on the International Women’s Rights Day while vegans and LGBT groups were detained on a peaceful march on the 1st of May.

Background information

Since the end of March 2017, Russia saw the biggest civic rallies taking place across the country since five years. Protests erupted after the NGO "Anti-Corruption Fund" led by opposition politician Alexei Navalny published an investigative report on corruption within the government. The report targeted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev exposing his exorbitant wealth. The "Anti-Corruption Fund" called citizens to demand from the authorities a due investigation of facts releaved in the report. Up to date, no official response was given by the authorities on the matter.

Ahead of the protests scheduled for 26 March 2017, requests to hold mass events were submitted to local authorities of 98 cities. Only 14 permission were given, all in small town remoted from Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Neither of the bans gave any reasonable ground for refusal, yet all of the lawsuits filed by the organisers were lost. In Ekaterinburg, Leninskii District Court judged the assembly was aimed at "destructing the constitutional order of Russia".

According to various sources, Moscow and Saint Petersburg saw 40 000 protesters coming down to the streets on 26 March. In total, 1500 people were detained across the country. In Moscow, more than 700 administrative cases against participants of the protests were reviewed by the Tverskoy District court. 138 individuals have been held administratively responsible under failure to follow a lawfull order or demand of a police officer while 64 individuals received a sentence of up to 25 days in jail, others spent up to 48 hours in police custody and were released after having been sentenced to fines. The hearings of administrative cases are still ongoing.

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