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Russia: Experts Dispute Case Against Protesters

International Panel Finds ‘Mass Riot’ Charge Inappropriate

(Moscow) – Charges against dozens of protesters in connection with the protest on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 inauguration are “inappropriate” and “disproportionate,” according to a panel of independent experts. Twenty seven people are facing “mass rioting” charges in connection with the protest on May 6, 2012.

To help people understand the complex May 6 events and their consequences, Human Rights Watch on December 18, 2013, published an interactive feature mapping out the day’s events, the resulting court cases, and information about the individuals facing prosecution. 

“The Bolotnaya case is quite possibly Russia’s trial of the year,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “It is largely about the government’s attempts to intimidate people into silence in Russia.”

The experts’ detailed findings are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s inquiries into the May 6 events, Human Rights Watch said.

In April, a coalition of eight international human rights organizations asked several prominent experts on freedom of assembly to examine the events of May 6, when tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in central Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. The organizations are: Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Centre de la Protection Internationale, the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Civil Initiative for OSCE, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the International Platform “Civic Solidarity.”

A small number of the protesters in the square on May 6 clashed with police. The clashes appeared sporadic, involving only dozens of people. Twenty-nine police and 55 protesters reported injuries, most of them minor. However, Russian investigative authorities alleged that the violence was planned and was part of a conspiracy to destabilize the country.

The authorities opened an investigation into protesters’ actions, describing them as “mass riots.” Under Russian law, “mass riots” are mass actions that involve “violence, pogroms, destruction of property, use of firearms, or armed resistance to the authorities.” The authorities have leveled a range of charges against the 27 protesters, including allegedly participating in, calling for, and organizing mass riots and using violence against the police.

“The bottom line is that May 6 protesters are being tried on disproportionate charges, and some of them have needlessly lost more than a year of their lives behind bars,” Lokshina said.

Fourteen of the 27 are in pretrial custody, 10 of them for more than a year. Twelve individuals are currently on trial (only four of out these twelve are not in prison). Two individual have been convicted and are serving prison sentences. One is in prison and is appealing a ruling ordering his indefinite detention in a psychiatric institution.

Eleven of the protesters who faced charges fled the country. Nine are living in exile, one was forcibly returned to Russia, and one committed suicide in exile.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the release of the demonstrators from custody. The failure to take basic steps to establish whether their continued detention is necessary violates the standards required by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a party, Human Rights Watch said.

The convention requires courts to give sufficient and concrete reasons for ordering pretrial detention. In Kalashnikov v. Russia, the European Court of Human Rights underscored that national courts have a duty to establish convincing reasons for ordering detention and that the authorities must show “special diligence” when a person is deprived of their liberty.

With over two dozen defendants, several court cases, protracted court proceedings, and various charges against various defendants, the Bolotnaya case is very complex. The interactive graphic was prepared to supplement the report by the independent experts and to help raise awareness of the case.

The independent experts based their work on international human rights standards relevant to freedom of assembly and use of force by police, and analysis of mass protests in other countries, including Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Northern Ireland, and the United States. They examined over 200 documents and more than 50 hours of video footage to determine the reasons for the clashes between demonstrators and police, whether the use of force by police was justified and proportionate, and whether the Russian authorities had sufficient grounds to legally qualify the protesters’ actions as “mass riots.”

In their 70-page report, “Events of May 6, 2012, at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square,” the experts found the authorities’ characterization of the events as “mass riots” to be inappropriate and the criminal charge disproportionate. The experts also found that the police apparently “detained a number of people who were not involved in any acts of violence” and “used disproportionate force on a number of occasions.”

While “the focus of the state authorities since 6 May 2012 has been to prosecute people for participation in the march and rally and in particular for the use of force against police officers,” the experts said, “there has been virtually no investigation into the use of force by police officers or any consideration of the legality and proportionality of any use of force.”

They concluded that the May 6 clashes were “in a large part a consequence of the actions by the authorities,” including the apparent failure of the police to establish effective communication with the rally organizers.


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