Russia: right to protest 'in danger of being lost altogether' - new report

Police disperse a protest outside the court in the 'Bolotnaya case' in Moscow, February 2014 © Denis Bochkarev / Amnesty International
‘The right to freedom of assembly has long been limited in Russia, but it is now in danger of being lost altogether’ - Denis Krivosheev
 
The right to protest is in danger of being lost in Russia, Amnesty International said in a new report published today (3 June), after a clampdown on government critics intensified in recent months.
 
Amnesty’s 38-page report - A right, not a crime: Violations of the right to freedom of assembly in Russia - documents the arbitrary banning of protests, the violent dispersal and arbitrary arrest of demonstrators, and the failure of the courts in Russia to uphold the right to freedom of assembly.
 
The report comes as the Russian parliament is adopting legislation that will criminalise organisations that repeatedly breach highly restrictive regulations on public assemblies. 
 
After a lull in protest activity following the crushing of the Bolotnaya Square protest in May 2012, Amnesty has documented ten 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 a dozen 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 over their frequent use of abusive force. 
 
Draconian legislation means that: 
 
*All public gatherings must be authorised in advance, unless held in remote designated areas. Failure to comply leads to heavy fines for organisers 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. 
 
Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director Denis Krivosheev said:
 
“The right to freedom of assembly has long been limited in Russia, but it is now in danger of being lost altogether. 
 
“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.
 
“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.” 
 

Amnesty events pushed to remote locations

Meanwhile, during 2013 and early 2014 all of the public activities planned by Amnesty activists in popular areas of Moscow were denied authorisation. The alternative locations suggested by the authorities were in remote and desolate parks. By contrast, pro-government demonstrations are frequently allowed to proceed in locations denied to dissenting voices or and even in formally prohibited areas. 
 
An independent group conducted a survey of the footfall in the different locations. Those requested by Amnesty 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 failing to uphold rights

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 have 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.   
 

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