Update: (Moscow, September 8, 2010) - For the second time in two weeks, a justice of the peace for Tverskoi District Court of Moscow has sentenced Lev Ponomarev, a leading Russian human rights defender, to four days of administrative detention for his involvement in a peaceful assembly. On September 7, 2010, the court found Ponomarev, 69, guilty of "disobeying police orders."

Ponomarev's detention prevented him from attending a scheduled meeting on September 8 with Michael McFaul, a senior member of the US National Security Council, during McFaul's visit to Moscow.

The new ruling relates to Ponomarev's participation in a peaceful anti-government protest, called  "A Day of Rage," in Tverskaya Square on August 12. At the rally, which was not sanctioned by the authorities, protesters demanded the resignation of Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, for interfering with freedom of assembly. Two other participants were charged with the same offense earlier and have already served administrative detention sentences of three days in one case and four days in the other. 

The police claimed that Ponomarev had "obstructed pedestrian traffic" by standing in the street while he spoke with journalists. Two police officers testified that Ponomarev had resisted arrest by pushing one of the officers and stepping on the foot of another. Ponomarev, in his testimony, said the officers treated him roughly, dragging him away and threatening to hit him. The court refused to admit into evidence a video recording of the incident.

Immediately after his arrest on August 12, Ponomarev needed to be admitted to a hospital in a state of a hypertonic crisis, a clinical syndrome characterized by a sharp rise in blood pressure. His court hearing was then postponed to September 7.  After the court found Ponomarev guilty, he was taken directly to the special detention center of the Moscow Police Department. According to his colleagues from the Movement for Human Rights, he is attempting to appeal the ruling.

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(Moscow, August 26, 2010) - The Tverskoi District Court of Moscow should overturn Lev Ponomarev's sentence of administrative arrest and ensure his immediate release from custody, Human Rights Watch said today. The activist was sentenced to three days for "disobeying police orders" and is currently serving the sentence at a special detention center of the Moscow Police Department.

"The Russian authorities should free Ponomarev immediately," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "And they should also allow people to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly instead of interfering with peaceful gatherings."

Ponomarev, a longtime human rights activist and head of the Movement for Human Rights, was arrested in the late afternoon on August 22, 2010, when he approached Pushkin Square in Moscow to join a public rally to support the protection of the Khimki Forest Park. Police detained him for several hours, alleging that earlier in the day he had failed to follow an order of a policeman, and released him pending an administrative hearing on August 25.  On the evening of August 25, a justice of the peace upheld the police allegations and sentenced Ponomarev to three days under administrative detention.

In the early hours of August 26, Ponomarev was brought to the detention center of the Moscow Police Department. Prior to his arrival at the detention center, Ponomarev, 68, felt unwell and an ambulance had to be called twice for him during the night. Ponomarev's lawyer lodged an appeal with the Tverskoi district court, demanding that the ruling on administrative detention be dismissed.

At around noon on August 22, Ponomarev had joined a group of opposition activists who attempted to march through the center of Moscow carrying a Russian flag. August 22 is national Flag Day in Russia, which commemorates the raising of the contemporary Russian tricolor flag over the Supreme Soviet building after a failed anti-democratic coup d'état attempt in 1991.

At approximately 1:00 p.m. the police apprehended several activists for taking part in that march, which had not been sanctioned by the city authorities. Ponomarev walked away when the police told marchers to disperse. As one of the organizers of a different and officially-sanctioned rally scheduled for 5 p.m. the same day, Ponomarev was taking care to avoid detention. As he approached Pushkin Square at around 4 p.m. together with Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, he was detained by police for having allegedly disobeyed their orders three hours earlier.

"Ponomarev's arrest was clearly timed and designed to ensure that he would not be able to participate in the authorized rally, in which he was supposed to be playing a key role," said Lokshina.  "As such, it is a blatant violation of his freedom of assembly and yet another example of the pernicious ways the authorities like to interfere with the work of the Movement for Human Rights."

The European Court of Human Rights, whose judgments are binding on Russia, has previously held that three days' deprivation of liberty is a severe penalty for administrative offences allegedly committed while peacefully exercising the right to assembly, and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover on this occasion, Ponomarev had dispersed when instructed to, and did not ignore any order. 

This is not the first time Ponomarev has been sentenced to administrative detention for his human rights work. In September 2006, he spent three days in jail for participating in a rally commemorating victims of the Beslan school hostage crisis and Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. Ponomarev was also brutally beaten in March 2009. The perpetrators have not yet been identified or brought to justice. That vicious attack prompted US President Barack Obama to raise the issue with his Russian counterpart, President Dmitri Medvedev, during their first ever meeting held in London in April 2009.

The rally at Pushkin Square was attended by up to 3,000 people. It was a part of a major campaign to safeguard the Khimki Forest Park, a legally protected ecosystem, from being damaged by major road construction planned by the authorities. Several prominent Russian rock musicians, including Yurii Shevchuk, were planning to perform. However, the authorities interfered and sought to undermine this authorized public gathering by preventing the organizers and musicians from setting up their sound equipment. The performers were left to perform without being heard by the audience.

The Russian authorities should immediately halt the practice of interfering with freedom of assembly, in particular through the detention of peaceful participants in public assemblies and human rights activists, said Human Rights Watch.

Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which guarantee freedom of assembly (under articles 11 and 21 respectively). The right to freedom of assembly is recognized as fundamental to the foundations of a democratic society. Governments must safeguard the right and must also refrain from applying unreasonable indirect restrictions upon it.