Dear Alexander Alexandrovich,
I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to ask that your respective offices conduct effective investigations into a series of violent attacks against individuals protesting the construction of a highway between Moscow and Saint-Petersburg through the Khimki forest, and into reports of excessive use of police force with respect to the protesters.
Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that documents human rights conditions worldwide. We have been working in Russia for over 15 years and during that time, researched and published numerous studies on the situation of human rights and civil society in Russia.
The violence against the environmental activists began on May 4, when a group of about 40 activists set up a camp in the area of the Khimki forest where the highway is under construction.
On May 4, 8, and 11, a number of violent clashes ensued between environmental activists on the one hand, and on the other, men wearing uniforms with insignia of the private security firm Vityaz. Also involved were unidentified men in civilian clothing, some of whom were masked. We understand that areas of the forest where the highway is under construction are guarded by Vityaz. Men wearing uniforms with Vityaz insignia indicated to the activists that the Russian company responsible for building the highway had commissioned them to protect the harvesting machinery.
Activists reported most of the violent incidents to the police, who were slow to arrive at the scene and in some instances took no action to seek to identify, locate or detain the attackers even when they were close to the scene. They also refused to open investigations into the attacks.
For example, on the afternoon on May 4, a group of men in civilian clothing assaulted two unarmed activists not far from the environmentalists’ camp. One of activists received a blow to the face, causing him to bleed. Later that night, a group of activists attempted to stop the tree-felling by standing in front of a harvesting machine and wrapping themselves around trees. Men wearing uniforms with the Vitiyaz insignia, as well as unidentified men, some of whom wore masks, beat the activists in order to chase them from the area. Several activists sustained injuries including dislocated fingers, cuts and bruises. Activists from Khimki Forest Defense Movement told Human Rights Watch that an unknown man smashed one of the activist’s head against a tree and threatened to “bury” the activists “in the Khimki forest”. The police were called immediately but arrived only two hours later. They ordered a stop to all the construction works and recorded the activists’ crime report, but refused to open an investigation into the attacks.
Fearing for their safety, on May 5 the activists requested the police to maintain a permanent presence near the camp to monitor the situation and protect peaceful protesters, but the police refused to do so.
Later that day, security guards hit, pushed, and shoved the activists. A journalist from a local newspaper, Yuri Samsonov, tried to film the developments but was prevented from doing so by an unidentified man who threatened to “cut off his ears”. Samsonov reported the incident to the police. Later on May 5, a group of unidentified men beat Samsonov in the forest and stole his camera. Although Samsonov has reported the second assault to the police also, to date, Samsonov has received no information about a criminal investigation being opened.
The next day, May 6, a group of activists attempted to block a harvesting machine from approaching their camp by standing in front of it holding hands. A violent brawl followed between 12 unarmed activists and a group of 13 security guards, some of whom were armed with brass knuckles. According to information received from activists of the Khimki Forest Defense Movement, seven activists sustained injuries of various degrees. Oleg Melnikov, for example, had to seek medical help for a jaw broken in two places, and Nikita Mikhalkov required medical attention for a groin injury. Human Rights Watch does not have information regarding whether security guards sustained any injuries. The attackers fled when police arrived at the scene; the police but did not attempt to pursue them. Later that day, the police detained two men alleged to be two of the attackers but released them two hours later. It is not known whether any charges were laid against the alleged attackers.
On May 11, a group of activists again attempted to stop the harvesting by wrapping themselves around trees. The police arrived at the scene, detained some of the activists, and took them to the police station. Unknown men in civilian clothing, armed with makeshift wooden clubs, attacked about 10 activists who remained at the harvesting site. Four of the activists had to be taken to the hospital to obtain treatment for injuries they sustained from the attack. Alexei Rassolov and Pavel Shehtman were diagnosed with concussions and had to be hospitalized (Shehtman also sustained a broken nose). Alexei Rassolov also told Human Rights Watch that his cell phone was stolen during the attack. Both activists filed a report of the attack with the Khimki police department. On June 14, Rassolov told Human Rights Watch that as far as he was aware, a criminal investigation into robbery of his phone was opened some time ago, but he is not aware of the progress of the investigation. Pavel Shehtman told Human Rights Watch that he had not received any information about a criminal case being opened into his assault.
On May 14, four unknown assailants accompanied by a man wearing a uniform with Vitiyaz insignia attacked one of the activists, Yuri Petin, in the forest near the camp. Police arrived at the scene and took Petin to a police station, where the duty police officer refused to take his statement about the assault and instead charged him with an administrative offense of “violating fire regulations in the forest”. Petin told Human Rights Watch that when he attempted to challenge the charge, the police officer threatened to fabricate evidence against him and throw him in jail. Petin also told Human Rights Watch that he filed a complaint with the Moscow district prosecutor’s office against unlawful actions of the police, but to date, has not received a response.
We would be very grateful to receive any information about whether investigations have been opened into the attacks described above and the status of any investigations that have been begun.
Use of excessive force by the police
Khimki protesters also told Human Rights Watch about two incidents in which police used excessive force and ill-treatment, and I would also like to inquire as to whether an investigation into these incidents has been opened.
On May 8, about 200 people assembled in the town of Khimki for a peaceful gathering against the motorway project. After assembling, the group started walking towards the forest in order to join the activists’ camp. Participants neither chanted nor carried any banners. According to media reports and multiple participants’ accounts, the peaceful gathering was suddenly and violently dispersed by riot police, who started hitting and kicking the protesters and dragging them into a police bus. We understand from activists from the Movement of Defense of Khimki Forest that police beat at least two protesters inside the police van.
The protesters sustained various injuries from the beatings: one person’s arm was dislocated and another one suffered a cracked rib. Twenty protesters were detained and brought to a local police station, where they were charged with administrative offenses, including resisting police and participating in an unsanctioned gathering. Their requests to have access to legal counsel were denied. They were released seven hours later, after the judge appointed to hear the charges identified multiple inconsistencies in police reports submitted after their arrest and refused to allow the case to proceed.
International and European human rights law prevails upon states to tolerate unsanctioned demonstrations provided they are peaceful. In some circumstances it is the state’s prerogative to disperse an unsanctioned, peaceful demonstration, and in some circumstances the authorities may use force to do so. But the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials makes clear that force should only be used only as a last resort, and only such force that is proportionate to the threat posed. The Basic Principles further state that “in the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.”
The beating of protesters after they were already in custody in the police van should be investigated as an instance of prohibited ill-treatment.
Two other activists, Suren Gyazaryan of the Environmental Watch for the North Caucus and an activist Dmitry Smirnov were detained by the police on May 11. Gyazaryan told Human Rights Watch that they were both beaten at the police station by a police officer who hit and kicked one of them in the face, causing bruising and a cut lip, and kicked another one in the stomach multiple times. They reported the beating to the duty officer at the station but to date, have not been informed of an investigation being open into the actions of the police officer who assaulted them. We would be grateful for any information about the investigation into this incident.
Human Rights Watch is aware that the highway project has been the focus of controversy for years, with environmental activists and the authorities disagreeing about the damage the highway would cause to the forest’s eco-system. We hope that as the project moves forward law enforcement agencies will protect the right to peaceful assembly, prevent violent attacks on peaceful protesters, and will investigate and hold to account the violent attacks documented in this letter.
I thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter.
Europe and Central Asia division