(Moscow) – Riot police beat and detained protesters at peaceful protests in March 2012, in Moscow and other cities, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should take swift action against riot police found to use excessive force against these peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

Following the March 4, 2012 presidential elections, the authorities continued to allow mass protests in Russia’s capital but refused to authorize similar rallies in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. Protesters were detained and beaten during both sanctioned and unsanctioned pro-democracy protests on March 5 and 10 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.

“Russian authorities did the right thing in the last few months by allowing legitimate protests to go on without police interference,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cracking down on peaceful protesters now, after the election is over, negates that positive development.”

On March 5, thousands of protesters gathered at Pushkin Square in central Moscow to protest Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential election. The organizers had authorization to hold the rally between 7 at 9 p.m. However, hundreds of people refused to leave the square after the protest. Riot police moved in, forcing people off the square and into the underground passage leading to the metro.

Human Rights Watch researchers monitored the rally at Pushkin Square and interviewed five protesters who were part of the dispersed gathering. They said the police had pushed and hit the protesters, including some who fell to the ground. 

One activist told Human Rights Watch, “They [the police] pushed us very hard even though people were not resisting. I saw people in the crowd around me falling down a lot. I also tripped and fell down at one point and had to crawl out of the way really fast to avoid being stepped on by the riot policemen.”

Another activist told Human Rights Watch that he saw the police hitting protesters and dragging them into police buses by their legs and arms. A riot police officer broke the arm of one of the protesters at Pushkin Square. In a televised interview several days later, she said “The police didn’t have to use force since I was standing there peacefully. I did not put up any resistance.”

Following the rally at Pushkin Square, several hundred activists also attempted to gather at Lubyanka Square, not far from the Kremlin. The rally was not authorized. Riot police armed with rubber truncheons forcefully dispersed the crowd. According to numerous media reports, police hit several participants with truncheons, including Yuliana Malashenko, a correspondent for Kommersant FM Radio, who was hit on the head and hospitalized with a concussion.

Human Rights Watch also received reports of police arbitrarily detaining people in other places in central Moscow on the night of the protests. For example, Karina Kotova told Human Rights Watch that she and a group of friends were detained merely for wearing white ribbons in the center of Moscow. She said the group was walking past Manezhnaya Square at approximately 11 p.m., when a police officer approached them and demanded that they remove the white ribbons from their coats. Kotova and her friends refused and within minutes were surrounded by police.

The police officials told them that they were being taken into custody “on suspicion of participating in mass riots.” They were held at the Lefortovo police precinct until early morning and finally released without charges.

According to official statistics of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, police arrested 250 protesters in the evening of March 5. The majority were released without charges although some were ordered to appear in court at a later date to face administrative charges of participating in an unsanctioned gathering and/or resisting police. 

A lawyer from the Public Verdict Foundation, a Russian legal assistance organization that has been providing urgent legal aid to protesters since December 2011, told Human Rights Watch that on the night of March 5, the group received over 100 phone calls from protesters requesting legal assistance. Most concerned arbitrary detention, excessive use of force by police, and ill-treatment, including beatings, at police stations.

“Even if some of the rallies were unauthorized, nothing can justify beating peaceful protesters or arbitrary detentions,” Williamson said. “Detainees’ due process rights should always be respected.”

Similar problems occurred in other major cities across Russia, with authorities in some cases refusing to permit rallies at all. In both Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg, for example, the authorities rejected authorization requests by protest organizers for rallies and violently dispersed them. Russian law requires protest organizers to notify authorities about a rally between 10 and 15 days beforehand. If a permit is denied, authorities must within three days offer an alternate venue and/or time for the event.

According to official statistics, 280 people were arrested during an unsanctioned gathering at Isaakievskaya Square in St. Petersburg on March 5 after the authorities refused to authorize it. Most of those arrested were released within several hours. Some were charged with taking part in an unauthorized gathering and resisting police and await administrative court hearings.

The Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture told Human Rights Watch that, on March 10, approximately 200 people gathered in Nizhny Novgorod’s city center to publicly protest the election results. The organizers attempted to get official authorization for the rally but authorities denied the request, citing “public safety” concerns and did not offer an alternative site.

One of the protesters, Artyom Sokolov, told Human Rights Watch that protesters started gathering at 3 p.m. and within minutes  riot police moved in without warning and dragged the protesters into police buses. Over 80 people were arrested. The majority were later released without charges.

Approximately 20 protesters, including Sokolov, were charged with disobeying police orders and were kept overnight at a police precinct, even though their arrest reports clearly stated that they were to be released, pending court hearings. Sokolov said the police confiscated his photo camera memory card and did not return it when he was released. Sokolov also told Human Rights Watch that while in custody he was questioned by a group of five officers from the local police unit for extremism prevention, who threatened him with physical violence in retaliation for his protest activities. 

In the early morning of March 11, police loaded the detained protesters into police buses and transferred them to a court building for administrative hearings. They were kept waiting in unheated buses for hours without food or water before being admitted into the court building in the late afternoon. By 5:30 p.m., the court had heard only Sokolov’s case. He was found guilty and sentenced to 24 hours of administrative arrest for disobeying police orders. Sokolov said that neither reporters nor relatives of the protesters were allowed into the courtroom. The rest of the group was released after 9 p.m. that evening with the explanation that the judge had “left for the day.”

Russia is a party to a number of human rights treaties – including the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – that impose obligations on the government to respect the right to free peaceful assembly and that prohibit ill-treatment of protesters in all circumstances. Any requirement to obtain authorization for a peaceful protest cannot be used to infringe upon the substance of freedom of assembly that is of central importance to a democratic society.

As the European Court of Human Rights has noted, an unauthorized peaceful protest does not justify an infringement on freedom of assembly, but requires a certain degree of tolerance on the part of the authorities. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations of those obligations.

“By failing to authorize protest rallies, the authorities essentially push peaceful protesters to breach relevant administrative regulations and then use this pretext to disperse the rallies and arrest the activists,” Williamson said. “Freedom of assembly is a fundamental part of democracy. In this new political cycle, Russia should fully comply with its obligation to ensure the right to peaceful assembly.”