An elderly protester holds a white flower as symbol of revolution and a paper with the words "election results" during a protest against alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections on Sakharov avenue in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011

Associated Press

February 27 Update
The last protest in Moscow before the March 4 presidential vote was held on February 26, 2012. The organizers urged all supporters of free and fair elections to wear white ribbons and form a chain along the sidewalks of the Garden Ring, the main road circling the city center. This plan seemed ambitious, as it takes around 30,000 people to circle the Garden Ring and “make it white.” Moreover, the protesters would need to organize carefully so that they did not form too big groups, crowd the sidewalks, or spill out on the road, and the like, which may have led to police intervention. One potential risk was that in some of its less popular areas, the Garden Ring would be void of protesters altogether while in the liveliest parts people would arrive in boisterous packs and cause enough interference with public order for the police to have legitimate reasons to break up the event before it even started.
 

But optimism won the day. When seeing sidewalks already “covered” by fellow-protesters, people simply walked farther, looking for gaps in the swiftly growing chain. Within just 40 minutes, the chain actually closed full circle. People, laughing, greeting each other, sharing candy, cigarettes and hot tea, made their “white ring” come true, demonstrating amazing solidarity and respect for the law. Some carried ribbons, others held on to huge white sheets, owners of white pets proudly displayed their pristine cats, rats, and dogs. Carnations and chrysanthemums were in abundance. So were white scarves, gloves, hats, and coats. Parents brought their kids along, with tiny babies sleeping in their prams and toddlers playing in the snow. Friendly drivers were honking non-stop, waving hands, sticking pieces of white cloth or simply white plastic bags from the windows. Even buses and trolleys were covered with posters and ribbons. That Sunday afternoon saw another Moscow, a place full of high spirits and offering hope to all those seeking a truly democratic election.  

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December 10 Update
On December 9, Moscow authorities authorized protest organizers to hold a demonstration on December 10 involving thousands at Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin. They also agreed to provide a “corridor” to those choosing to gather closer to the Red Square, so that they could march across the bridge to the other bank of the river and join the main demonstration.
 

Two Human Rights Watch researchers monitored the December 10 protest in Moscow through its entire duration, between 2 and 6 p.m., first following the marchers and then observing the rally at Bolotnaya Square.
 

The city’s center was full of police and military personnel as well as armored personnel carriers. More than 2000 protestors marched calmly through the heart of Moscow, to the edge of Red Square , and over the bridge to the other side of the river. They were waving flags and chanting slogans with no interference from police.
 

By conservative assessments, around 50,000 people gathered at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10. People of different political convictions were protesting under such slogans as, “I’m a citizen of my country”; “We want fair elections!” “Our opinion matters!” Over 5000 gathered for a similar rally observed by a Human Rights Watch researcher in St. Petersburg. Human Rights Watch observed no violence by police or demonstrators.

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December 7 Update
(Moscow) – As protests in Moscow escalate, the authorities are still failing to comply with their human rights obligations. In particular the authorities’ response continues to violate rights of freedom of assembly, expression, liberty, and security as well as due process rights.
 

On the night of December 6, after an unsanctioned protest on Triumfalnaya Sq., almost 600 people, according to official records, were detained by police and taken to various police precincts around Moscow. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, police resorted to force to disperse protesters, including pushing and kicking them and beating them with batons. Human Rights Watch spoke to four people who were detained who told us that they had to spend the night in overcrowded police stations standing up, without water or food, and were not allowed to see their lawyers.
 

Administrative court hearings for people detained on Dec 5 continue. According to media reports, trials are being held behind closed doors, and the accused do not have any legal representation. The hearings last only a few minutes. Lawyers, relatives, and journalists have not been allowed into the courtrooms. So far, more than ten people have been summarily sentenced to between 10 to 15 days administrative detention for disobeying police orders. There have been no acquittals. 
 

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(Moscow, December 6, 2011) – Russian authorities should respect the right to freedom of assembly and promptly release everyone arrested at peaceful protests on December 5, 2011, who did not engage in acts of violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

Russian riot police detainedover 300 demonstrators at a major rally in Moscow to protest what they contend are fraudulent parliamentary election results. Most remain in custody awaiting court hearings; three have already been sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest.

“The protesters have a right to express their concerns about the way the elections were carried out.” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 

“Arresting peaceful protesters and imposing jail time hardly speaks well for the government and is unacceptable in a democratic society.”  The parliamentary election on December 4 was marred and criticized by international observers.

Media reports variously estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the Chistye Prudy area of central Moscow. The demonstration, organized by political opposition and civil society activists, was sanctioned by the Moscow authorities. However, the organizers had told the authoritiesthat they anticipated crowds of up to 500 people. The arrival of thousands of protesters was a surprise to the organizers as well as to the police.

Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and media reports said the protesters were overwhelmingly peaceful. Many were holding placards criticizing the election results and chanting opposition slogans.

At approximately 7:30 p.m., the protesters started moving along the main street leading toward the Central Electoral Building. The riot police responded by dispersing the spontaneous march, sometimes violently, detainingpeople at random and hauling them into waiting police vans. By 11 p.m. the Chistye Prudy area, as well as areas around the Kremlin and the State Duma had been blocked off by riot police.

According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, approximately 300 people, including opposition leaders, journalists, and well known activists, were detained. Journalists later reported that they were detained even when they showed their press cards. The detainees were taken to at least 11 police precincts in Moscow.

Human Rights Watch interviewed several activists who participated in the protest at Chistye Prudy. One said that several of her friends who had been arrested called her from the Yakimanka police station and told her they were being accused of inciting vandalism. The detainees were mainly charged with refusing to obey police orders and inciting violence. Other people interviewed and media reports said most of the detainees had to spend the night in the police stations. Media reports also said that the police did not allow lawyers to visit the detainees and refused to accept parcels with water and food for them.

Administrative trials started on the morning of December 6. Ilya Yashin, a member of the opposition party PARNAS was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention for disobeying police orders “by waving his hands in the air and refusing to leave,” according to the judge. The judge said he was handing down a particularly severe sentence because Yashin’s actions demonstrated a “high level of threat to society.” Two more opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Egor Zhgun, werefound guilty on the same charges andalso sentenced to 15 days of detention.

Post-election protests also took place in other Russian cities. Approximately 1,000 people were detained after riot police violently dispersed a rally in St. Petersburg on the night of December 5. Police officers arrested not only protesters but also passers-by, media reports said.

The right of peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Russia is a party. Article 11 of the ECHR states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others…” Article 21 of the ICCPR states that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Russian constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, in article 31, which states, “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.”

As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, the freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that a person cannot be subjected to a sanction – even one at the lower end of the scale of disciplinary penalties – for participation in a demonstration that has not been prohibited, so long as this person does not himself commit any reprehensible act on such an occasion.

The court has also emphasized that an unlawful situation does not justify an infringement of freedom of assembly. The court said that in instances in which demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, it is important for the public authorities to show a certain degree of tolerance toward peaceful gatherings if freedom of assembly is not to be deprived of all substance.

“There is no question that the number of protesters came as a surprise to the authorities and the police need to uphold law and order,” Williamson said. “But that’s no reason to use excessive force against people who were just expressing dissatisfaction, to deny detainees their due process rights, or to punish them with lengthy jail sentences.”