Sergei Nikitin: "The silent people on Kamergersky Pereulok"

posted 13 Oct 2014, 05:59 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Oct 2014, 06:09 ]
6 October 2014

By Sergei Nikitin, director of the Moscow office of Amnesty International

Source: Echo of Moscow

I know someone who is worried. She's not someone who is indifferent to what is going on. There are many things she doesn't like. She has grievances against the government of our country. She's not the only one, mind you.

Events over the last few years have led her to believe that freedom of assembly is becoming a fiction in our country. So, in strict accordance with the law, she notified the Moscow authorities that a demonstration would be held to draw her fellow citizens' attention to violations of the right to freedom of assembly in the Russian Federation.

My acquaintance's request for permission to hold a demonstration to draw attention to violations of the right to freedom of assembly was rejected by the deputy prefect of Moscow. Citing Federal Law no.54, he maintained that, in accordance with his duties, it was not possible to allow a demonstration with this stated aim. And he suggested that the application should specify the wording to be used as slogans and on placards for the demonstration. There is no mention of this in the Federal Law.

This hyper-caution, bordering on fear, is evidently what is driving the people whose job it is to give permission. Whatever it's called, whatever euphemisms are thought up — one thing is clear-cut. Just ban it.

It's absolutely obvious that over the last few years the freedom to hold public meetings, pickets and demonstrations in the Russian Federation has shrunk tremendously. Since the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, new laws and rules have gradually restricted this right, although it is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution. The authorities now have at their disposal a whole range of measures which allow them to ban, limit or change demonstrators' plans and arbitrarily break up any gathering at all. The excuse mentioned above is one such example.

A one-person picket is the only form of public protest which does not require official permission. There have been attempts to limit this too, but as yet they have not succeeded. There is no legal exception, though, for spontaneous gatherings. This makes any protests illegal if they arise as an instant reaction to new events which are significant for the public. If such meetings take place, the authorities generally react immediately and try to stop the event, however few people are involved and no matter how peaceful it is, without considering whether it is actually necessary to intervene.

Well, if the prefect doesn't find it possible to grant permission, there's only one thing left to do. A one-person picket. But what will happen if the number of picketers increases from one to ten? And what if all the additional participants are not completely alive? When the authorities are models of virtuosity when it comes to issuing bans, brilliant ideas come to mind.

A group of eleven protesters went on to Tverskaya Street. Ten of them were made of plastic. They were well dressed and stood mutely, as if frozen, under Moscow's grey September sky. The group attracted passers-by with the placards across their chests: "Freedom will never go out of fashion"; "Mannequins are protesting because people are forbidden to".

Soon enough, a group of police discovered this picket and came over. Men in grey greatcoats asked to see the demonstrators' permit. The mannequins pretended to be deaf. The one-person picket girl pointed out to the confused policemen that it was a one-person picket. Counting the number of participants on their fingers, the policemen got into an argument, which they lost. Trying not to lose face, the police then started to ask for some little pieces of glass which were scattered on the ground to be picked up (the eleventh mannequin fell over when her stand broke).

Laughing policemen took photos on their mobile phones of the argument over the splinters of glass.

Half an hour later the girl took away her mute helpers — her dedicated fighters for freedom of expression.

What is to be done if it's becoming harder and harder for living people to shout the word of truth? Don't be silent, even if mannequins are mute.

Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts