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(Moscow) – Russian authorities at the highest levels of government need to take immediate steps to protect the right to peaceful assembly, and investigate and hold accountable those responsible for any violations, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 17 and 18, 2012, police detained over 130 peaceful protesters at three separate gatherings in Moscow. Earlier that week, over 10 pro-democracy activists were sentenced to administrative arrest in Nizny Novgorod for having participated in a peaceful protest rally on March 10. Human Rights Watch called on the government to stop interfering with peaceful protests in the new political cycle.

“All these demonstrations were clearly peaceful,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The activists did nothing to provoke the police or necessitate police interference.”

At about 1 p.m. on March 17, several dozen protestors gathered at Revolution Square, a few steps from the Kremlin, to show support for a prominent environmental advocate, Suren Gazaryan, and his lawyer, Victor Dutlov. They had been sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest on March 14 in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, for “disobeying police orders.”

Evgeny Vitishko, Gazaryan’s colleague from Ecological Watch, an environmental group in the North Caucasus, told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of March 13 the activist and his lawyer were inspecting a fence allegedly damaged by local environmentalists around a summer residence which they believed to be owned by the governor of Krasnodar.

Several security guards confronted Gazaryan and Dutlov and hit Gazaryan several times, Vitishko said. Gazaryan and Dutlov were then taken into police custody, tried the next day, and transferred to a detention center in Tuapse region infamous for its location in a cold, damp basement with no sanitation facilities.

The protest in support of Gazaryan and Dutlov consisted of one-person pickets, for which no authorization is required by Russian law. The activists stationed themselves on the pedestrian square, keeping a distance of 30 meters between each protester and the next, so as not to form a crowd, which would require authorization. They stood peacefully holding posters and causing no interference with public order, several protesters told Human Rights Watch.

Within 15 minutes, police dragged 28 activists into waiting police buses and took them to two precincts in central Moscow. The detainees, with one exception, were released several hours later pending administrative hearings for participation in an unsanctioned public gathering, effectively a misdemeanor. The one exception, Vera Lavreshina, refused to show her identification documents at the police station and was held overnight.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three protesters detained at Revolution Square. Evgenia Chirikova, a leading environmentalist, said:

They [police] moved in right away and were very rough with us, dragging people by their hands and feet, never identifying themselves, never trying to negotiate. I was pulled by my arms so forcefully that I can barely raise them now, the muscles hurt so badly…Then, they just threw me into a bus and started closing the door right on my legs, which were still hanging out. Fortunately, those who had been thrown into the bus before me managed to pull me in. They basically saved my legs from being slammed on by the metal door.

Lev Ponomarev, a prominent human rights defender, also confirmed to Human Rights Watch that police officers handled the protesters roughly and failed to identify themselves or provide any explanation for the detentions. Ponomarev said that by the time he and another 12 protesters were delivered to the Meschansky precinct, the police had already prepared identical reports on each person stating that she or he “was shouting slogans and interfering with pedestrian traffic.”

Ponomarev emphasized that this was not the case:

 "No one shouted anything before the police moved in and started dragging people onto the buses. We stood quietly with the posters, which is     allowed by law. But once about seven people unfolded their posters, the police just jumped at them. I tried to inquire why they were arresting peaceful protesters but they ignored me. Then, I took out my own poster and two police officers immediately seized me by the elbows. I kept asking them to identify themselves, which they’re required to do, to explain the reasons for my detention but they were just dragging me to the bus without saying a word.

Also on March 17, approximately 300 activists gathered between 2 and 3:30 p.m. at Pushkin Square in central Moscow to express support for political prisoners. The organizers did not seek official authorization for the rally but chose to frame it as a meeting with a State Duma deputy from the Fair Russia party who is a supporter of the ongoing public protests. Members of the parliament can meet with their constituencies without negotiating the time and venue with the city authorities, as long as the meeting does not interfere with public order. A representative of Human Rights Watch monitored the rally and observed two activists being detained for raising a poster demanding the release from custody of three performance artists from the punk band “Pussy Riot” who face up to seven years in prison for a provocative anti-Putin performance art piece they staged at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow’s biggest church, two weeks before the March 4 presidential election.

Once the poster was raised, several police officers dragged the activists into a bus and took them to a police precinct, from which they were released several hours later pending administrative hearings for participation in an unauthorized rally.

“It is a positive development that despite a massive police presence, the gathering at Pushkin Square was allowed to run its course,” Williamson said. “However, raising a poster was no threat to public order and was no reason to take someone into custody.”

In the third episode, several hundred people gathered at approximately 3 p.m. on March 18 next to the TV Center Ostankino to object to a television program about the recent protest movement. The “Anatomy of Protest” program, which was aired on NTV, a state-controlled federal television channel, several days earlier, alleged that democracy protesters were corrupt agents of foreign powers. The protesters had not sought official authorization for the gathering as it takes at least 10 days to negotiate holding a public rally. Many wore white ribbons, the symbol of the peaceful protests following disputed parliamentary elections in December.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two activists, who said they came to Ostankino for a “spontaneous picket against blatant lies by NTV.” Both said the police moved in after 3 p.m. and carried out mass detentions. According to Russia’s Interior Ministry, over 100 protesters were arrested. An independent website featuring information about police detentions during public protests, OVD Info, published the names of 90 of those arrested. By the morning of March 19, all of the detained had been released pending administrative hearings for participating in an unauthorized public gathering and/or disobeying police orders.

“People were just standing there,” one activist who was at the demonstration told Human Rights Watch. “They did not provoke police in any way. Some held posters. Others didn’t. I saw several people with posters dragged into [police] buses by their arms and legs and then heard a police officer yell, ’Grab everyone who’s wearing a white ribbon! Just take them all!’ That’s when the detentions really unfolded. It was like a huge wave!”

Another activist informed Human Rights Watch that several people were detained when merely approaching Ostankino. He said the police also grabbed a man who had neither a poster nor a white ribbon and appeared to be a bystander. He saw the man roughly dragged onto a police bus despite his protests.

More than 10 activists were sentenced in recent days by an administrative court in Nizhny Novgord to periods of administrative arrest of between one and nine days for disobeying police orders during a March 10 unauthorized protest rally.

Stanislav Dmitrievsky, a leading human rights activist in Nizhny Novgorod, told Human Rights Watch that he was sentenced to nine days of administrative arrests on March 16 and was taken to a detention center in Balakhna, some 60 kilometers from Nizhny Novgorod, as the city administrative detention center was already “full to overflowing.” He said his cell, which was designed to accommodate no more than 10 people, already contained 12 people. Two other protesters held in the neighboring cell told Dmitrievsky that their cell was also filled beyond its holding capacity.

The detention center staff took a dozen books that Dmitrievsky had with him to “examine them for extremist content.” The books included the New Testament and two prominent Christian commentaries. Dmitrievsky successfully appealed his sentence and was released the next day. He is assisting protesters still in detention to appeal.

Human Rights Watch reiterates that according to the European Court of Human Rights, 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.

“Over and over again, the Russian police move in on peaceful protesters and drag them off,” Williamson said. “The government needs to make clear that holding up a poster or standing peacefully in protest is no reason to throw people into detention.”

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