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(Moscow) – Police in several Russian cities interrupted or stopped small, peaceful civic demonstrations, limiting freedom of expression and assembly as the Winter Olympic Games kicked off in Sochi on February 7. The Russian government should stop arbitrarily detaining peaceful protesters, and the International Olympic Committee should take up cases of activists held, Human Rights Watch said today.  

From February 7 to 9, dozens of peaceful demonstrators were detained in small protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nalchik in the course of several days. Four of the gatherings aimed to draw attention to Olympics-related concerns. Participants in most of the planned protests told Human Rights Watch that the police had been waiting for them and prevented their public events from taking place. The majority of activists spent three to four hours in police stations; others were detained for longer periods of time, often without food or water. All were charged with administrative offences and are scheduled to appear in court in the coming days.

“Even with the whole world watching, Russian authorities had no qualms about detaining people for small, peaceful protests,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Russian authorities should respect basic rights like free speech and right of assembly, but instead they are monitoring critics and quashing peaceful events before they even begin.”

On February 7, the day of the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympic Games, four activists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights were detained in Saint Petersburg. Anastasia Smirnova, one of the detained activists and a coordinator for a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, told Human Rights Watch that she and others were on their way to take photos with a banner when police detained them. The banner read “Discrimination is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement. Principle 6. Olympic Charter.”

Smirnova said police held the activists in custody for almost four hours, repeatedly called them “provocateurs,” and charged for violating article 20.2.2 of the Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences (organization of an unsanctioned public event). On February 17, an administrative court found all four guilty of the offense.

Hours later, Moscow police detained ten LGBT activists on Red Square. One of the activists, Gleb Latnik, told Human Rights Watch that police immediately surrounded the activists as they left a café on Red Square on their way to hold the picket. The activists had planned to sing the Russian national anthem while holding rainbow flags to coincide with the Olympic opening ceremony in Sochi. Police detained all ten activists, including two from Sweden, and took them to a local police station. They released the two foreigners within a few hours, but held the others for more than four hours.  Latnik said one police officer attempted to strike him and that he saw another spitting into a detained activist face. Two other activists were handcuffed to a lock-up cell. They were all eventually released and will face an administrative court hearing on February 19 for organizing an unsanctioned public event.

According to OVDInfo, a website monitoring Russian police, thirteen more people were briefly detained on the same day in Moscow during a demonstration protesting the Olympics. Most of the detained were reportedly onlookers.

Also on February 7, police arrested more demonstrators in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, in Russia’s North Caucasus. One demonstrator, Abubekir Murzakan, chair of the Circassian public association Adyge Khekuzh Circassia, told Human Rights Watch that police detained some 27 people who had gathered to protest the Sochi Games. He said that some onlookers were also briefly detained, including Circassian repatriates from Syria, who were released a day later.

The demonstrators drove in cars displaying banners which read “Sochi – the land of genocide.” Circassian activists have criticized the Russian government’s decision to host the Olympic Games in Sochi because many Circassian and other ethnic minorities claim Sochi as their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.

Most of the detained were reportedly released the next day, but a court handed four demonstrators five days of administrative detention, and two more were given seven days of administrative detention. According to Murzakan, all have been since released.

Some of the detained activists told Caucasian Knot (Kavkazski Uzel), a Russian web news media outlet, that the police used force and threats during detention and questioning. Murzakan told Human Rights Watch that at the station, before police questioned him, he spent 30 to 40 minutes with a plastic bag over his head. The bag was not sealed so, he was able to take shallow breaths. Murzakan said two more people spent some time with plastic bags on their heads. 

“One of the pillars of the Olympic charter is free expression,” Cooper said. “Russian authorities should honor that, and allow people to peacefully express concerns related to the Games.”

Elsewhere in Russia, police did not interfere with peaceful demonstrators protesting against discrimination of LGBT people in Russia on February 7.

On February 8, dozens of people came to Manezhnaya Square, near the Kremlin, to participate in a flash mob to support Russia’s independent television channel, Dozhd TV (TV Rain), which had faced government criticism and pressure after posting on their website a controversial poll about the Leningrad blockade during World War II. The participants brought umbrellas, which they were to open during the flash mob as a symbol of support for Dozhd TV.

A political activist, Narmina Akhmedli, told Human Rights Watch that she was among the first to be detained by the police. Akhmedli said that the police had been waiting for the flash mob participants and detained 43 of them as soon as they arrived at Manezhnaya Square. Akhmedli said that the police did not use force while detaining the activists; however, she said that one of the participants, an older woman, was pushed and fell during the arrests. She remained on the ground until another activist helped her and called the ambulance.

Police took most of the would-be protesters to several Moscow police stations, held them for over three hours and released them. However, according to Akhmedli, some remained in detention until the next morning. Most will face administrative court hearings in March for allegedly violating article 20.2.5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (participation in an unsanctioned public event).

Two more activists were detained in Moscow on February 9 when they tried to participate in a public event to support anti-government protesters in Ukraine. Pavel Shelkov, an activist with the Committee for Solidarity with Euromaidan movement, told Human Rights Watch that when he arrived at Europe Square, where the public protest was to take place, he saw that the square had been cordoned off by police, that at least 10 police buses were nearby, and many policemen were patrolling the area. Shelkov said he was about to leave when the police asked to see his documents. “I showed my driver’s license and was told that it wasn’t enough and to come with them to a police bus in order to establish my identity. When I offered to show my passport, police ignored it and detained me.”

Shelkov and another activist were held for over 24 hours. Shelkov was accused of violating police orders (article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences), and the other detained activist was charged with minor hooliganism (article 20.1) for allegedly swearing at the police when they tried to take away his passport. While in detention, Shelkov told Human Rights Watch, they were not given food or water. Other detainees shared their food with them. Both activists will have to appear in court in coming days and could get jail time.

The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a party, guarantees freedom of assembly, and governments may not place unreasonable restrictions on this right. The European Court of Human Rights has described the right to assemble peacefully as “one of the foundations of a democratic society” and makes it clear that individuals cannot lose their right to peaceful assembly as a result of arbitrary governmental decisions or during special events, such as the Olympics.

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