Statement by Memorial Human Rights Centre concerning the demonstrations of 26 March

posted 10 Apr 2017, 06:12 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 Apr 2017, 07:14 ]
31 March 2017

Source: [original source: Memorial Human Rights Centre]

"On Sunday 26 March 2017 demonstrations against corruption took place in many Russian cities. Those in Moscow and St. Petersburg were particularly large. The number of arrests was also very large. In Moscow a new record was set: more than one thousand people were detained for realizing their constitutional rights.

The press secretary of V.V.Putin called the demonstrations a ‘provocation,’ and explained the significant participation in these events by young people on the grounds of alleged promises of ‘monetary rewards’ by the organizers of the protests.

But if the events of that Sunday were indeed provoked, it was solely by the authorities.

First of all, the authorities did this by their determination not to give official answers to lawful questions by citizens about corruption in the highest echelons of government. People took to the streets precisely because of the absence of any reasonable reaction to evidence of dubious financial receipts by the head of the Russian government, Dmitry Medvedev, that were exposed by the Foundation for Combating Corruption.

A second factor was the authorities unmotivated rejection of requests to hold the march along Tverskaya street.

The obstacles put up by official bodies all over the country to giving permission for the holding of anti-corruption public events were unlawful.

They evidently exceeded the restrictions on freedom of assembly permissible in a democratic society.

The demagogy of the authorities in referring to the ‘law’ only emphasise the actual lack of fundamental freedoms in Russia. The federal law ‘On assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches and picketing’ in its current form, together with a series of other normative acts adopted in recent years, has in essence abolished the constitutional rights of citizens, substituting a system based on ‘permission’ for one based on ‘notification,’  a system which in essence amounts to prohibition.

It cannot be considered an acceptable state of affairs when the executive branch of government decides at its own discretion where criticism of government can and cannot be expressed.

However, even under current Russian law, the lack of agreement by local authorities is no justification for the mass arrest and beating of participants in a peaceful protest.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly pointed out that convincing and indisputable grounds are needed to justify interference with the right to peaceful assembly.

The illegality of a demonstration from the point of view of the lack of preliminary notification of the police does not in itself justify a limitation on the right to peaceful assembly.

Any demonstration in a public place, to some extent, inevitably disrupts the usual flow of life, creating hindrances to traffic.

But so long as demonstrators do not resort to force, the authorities must show tolerance in relation to peaceful assembly.

People who gathered on Tverskaya Street did not show any aggression at all, and there were no grounds to hinder them from expressing their point of view. The possible presence of individual provocateurs and aggressive individuals cannot and must not be a reason to disperse a peaceful demonstration. On the contrary, the police can and are obliged to defend the right of citizens to express their opinions, while ensuring their security.

The accounts of witnesses, video recordings and testimony of those who were themselves detained clearly show the unlawful nature of the detentions and the lack of grounds for the use of force by the police.

In the course of the arrests, many participants in the demonstration in Moscow were subjected to inhumane treatment and violence on the part of police officers.

The conditions under which those detained in Moscow were taken to the police stations, and subsequently treated, in many cases violated the ban on torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.

Today in Moscow and throughout the country, courts continue to hear the cases of those detained. As of 30 March, according to the data gathered by the human rights project OVD-Info, in Moscow alone at least 65 people were sentenced to terms in prison from two to 25 days.

People were prosecuted under administrative law, fined and jailed in violation of the right to fair trial.

The response to questions asked lawfully of the authorities has been the arrest and imprisonment of twelve employees and volunteers of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (including the head of the organization, Aleksei Navalny) and of four operators of online broadcasts, the sacking of the Foundation's office and the confiscation of its equipment.

The reaction of the authorities to the mass protests on 26 March has not been limited to arrests, fines and jail terms. From all over the country there have been more and more reports of unjustified summonses of individuals who took part in the demonstrations to the Centre for Combating Extremism. Students have been threatened with expulsion from university. In a number of cities, including Moscow, criminal charges have already been brought in a relation to certain episodes that happened in the course of the protest.

All this gives grounds to speak of a new wave of political repression.

Today it is necessary to do everything possible to stop this wave and to avoid catastrophic consequences for the present and future of our country.

We are convinced that the unjustified use of violence by the police does not support, but on the contrary destroys, law and order, and undermines respect for the law and the legitimacy of institutions of state.  

In the modern world, a regime that is unable to respond to society in any other way than by means of police batons and political repression is doomed. This is not a demonstration of strength, but of cowardice, and of a lack of preparedness and of the ability to defend one's point of view.

We call for an immediate end to the prosecution of participants in peaceful assemblies, and for the release of those who have been jailed under administrative law. 

We call for those officials guilty of violating the rights and freedoms of the participants in the protests of 26 March to be brought to justice.