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(Moscow) – Russian authorities have detained hundreds of peaceful protesters in recent weeks, in most cases arbitrarily and in some cases with unnecessary force. The detentions are part of a new crackdown on free expression and assembly as the crisis unfolds in neighboring Ukraine.

The detentions took place during protests against Russia’s approval of military intervention in Ukraine and during small demonstrations and other gatherings to support eight people sentenced to long prison terms for a protest in May 2012, on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration.

“Many wondered what a post-Sochi crackdown might look like,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These detentions, the crackdown under way on the media, and violent attacks against dissenters by unidentified assailants paint a stark picture of what is going on in Russia right now.”

Between February 21 and March 4, police detained at least 1,264 peaceful protesters in Moscow alone. Courts ordered at least 15 of them to serve 10 days of administrative detention for alleged failure to obey police orders, and fined dozens of others for participating in unauthorized public gatherings. The majority are still awaiting administrative court hearings. Police have also detained dozens of peaceful protesters in other Russian cities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 people between March 6 and 11 who participated in various protests, all of whom had either been detained or witnessed detentions. Based on their statements, as well as videos and photos Human Rights Watch examined, the police appeared to detain people without due cause and frequently resorted to unnecessary and excessive force by dragging and pushing unresisting protesters.

“The Russian government’s message could not be clearer,” Williamson said. “If you’re thinking about joining a protest anywhere in Russia that is critical of the government, no matter how small, no matter how peaceful, without government approval, think again.”

In most of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, police who detained protesters either were not wearing their identity badges or did not have their badges visible, in violation of Russian police regulations and required practice under human rights standards. Police would not identify themselves or explain to people why they were being detained.

During most of the protests, police wedged their way into the crowd in groups of about five, detaining people one at a time. They first would target peaceful protesters who held posters or led others in shouting slogans, following up by detaining other protesters at random. Later, police issued detainees identical citations with the offense they were alleged to have committed, the only difference being the names and passport details of each detainee. Protesters were also generally held at police precincts without charge for longer than the three hours allowed under Russian law.

The majority of those detained received a citation for participation in an unauthorized gathering – article 20.2 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses, punishable by fines of up to 30,000 rubles (approximately US$810). Some were charged with disobeying police orders (article 19.3), punishable by fines of up to 1,000 rubles (approximately $27) or administrative detention of up to 15 days. While in most cases administrative hearings are still pending, courts have already fined dozens of people, most between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles – approximately $273 and $546 – and have sentenced at least 15 protesters to up to 10 days of administrative detention. Human Rights Watch is aware of only one case in which a protester was acquitted – apparently to a large extent because he is male, and the police document referred to him as female.

In a March 4 statement, Russia’s ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, called the mass detentions groundless and random and noted the police failure to wear identification badges. Lukin said that police citations were in many cases “identical” and “written up in advance,” and expressed concern about the fairness of the administrative court hearings that have already taken place.

The chief lawyer for Public Verdict, a nongovernmental Russian group that provides legal assistance to victims of police abuse, told Human Rights Watch that she provided legal advice to over 150 of those detained in Moscow. She said the problems raised in Lukin’s statement and that Human Rights Watch identified were relevant in all of the cases she dealt with.

To their credit, Moscow authorities approved a large-scale antiwar rally for March 15, which took place without police interference.

Human Rights Watch documented cases in three cities in which men whose identities were not known but who called themselves “patriots” threatened and attacked protesters during rallies or in advance of a planned rally. In two of those cases, police were present but did not intervene to protect the protesters.

“Violent attacks against protesters by thugs, coupled with police failure to stop the attackers, serves to further discourage people in Russia from publicly expressing their discontent and frightens them into silence,” Williamson said.

The right to 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, as well as by the Russian Constitution. As the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) 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 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 commit any reprehensible act on that occasion.

The ECtHR has said that 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. Russia’s Constitutional Court has also emphasized on several occasions that liability for breaking the regulations on public gatherings is only applicable when the event resulted in a tangible threat to public safety, life, and health of its participants and others.

Detentions of “Bolotnaya” Prisoners’ Supporters in Moscow and St. Petersburg
Police detained hundreds of people in Moscow and dozens in St. Petersburg who gathered peacefully to support eight protesters convicted on February 21 of inappropriate charges related to a mass demonstration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin’s presidential inauguration in May 2012.

The majority were released and cited for participation in an unauthorized gathering. Dozens were also cited for disobeying police orders. Many were cited for traffic violations. In Moscow, some were detained on February 21 and February 24, 2014, or twice on February 24. As a result, the total number of detentions on these two days is greater than the total number of individuals detained.

February 21, Moscow
The first wave of arbitrary detentions in Moscow was on February 21, the day a Moscow court handed down the guilty verdict against the “Bolotnaya” protesters.

With the hearing scheduled to begin at noon, hundreds of people came to the Zamoskvoretsky courthouse to support the defendants. After the authorities let immediate family members, defense lawyers, and accredited journalists into the courthouse, a large crowd spontaneously formed outside the building, eventually numbering over 1,000. Two Human Rights Watch staff were there and closely observed the developments. Some people held posters with such slogans as, “Freedom to Bolotnaya Prisoners” and “Glory to Heroes!” or carried white balloons or Russian flags. The majority, however, were empty-handed.

Police had closed off several neighboring streets in advance, and numerous police vehicles and detainee transfer buses were parked near the courthouse.

Human Rights Watch not did not see anyone in the crowd engaging in violence, nor was the crowd interfering with traffic, as police had largely blocked streets leading into the area.

Human Rights Watch observed the first detentions shortly after noon. At first, police singled out people who held up posters or led the crowd in shouting, “Freedom!” and other slogans, detaining them one by one in 7- to 10-minute intervals. Then they detained people randomly and more frequently. Police officials ran toward people who were standing peacefully and dragged them away.

According to OVD-Info, an independent online information agency that monitors police detentions, by the end of the day police had detained at least 200 supporters of the “Bolotnaya” prisoners, including three journalists, a prominent film director, and a 60-year-old mathematician from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 people detained on February 21, all of whom alleged that police treated them roughly – for example by dragging them on the pavement, pushing them, and pulling at their arms and legs when they were putting up no resistance. All said that they, as well as the protesters standing next to them, were absolutely peaceful. Most said they were not holding posters or shouting slogans. All 10 said that the police officers did not wear identification badges, refused to identify themselves, and refused to inform them why they were being detained.

Ample video and photo evidence Human Rights Watch examined corroborates the protesters’ accounts, showing police acting the way the people interviewed had described, although Human Rights Watch did not view videos of the detentions of all of the people interviewed. All 10 also said police held them without charge longer than the three hours allowed by law, and that they were all issued almost identical citations.

Sergei Parkhomenko, a prominent journalist and opposition activist, told Human Rights Watch that police officers put him in a chokehold even though he did not resist arrest. He filed an official complaint with the police on the same day but has received no response.

Parkhomenko told Human Rights Watch that police jumped on him, without giving him a chance to come with them voluntarily:

I had no poster, and I did not shout slogans. Still, I got detained and the detention was carried out with particular demonstrative roughness. Police dragged me to the bus – they literally wiped the pavement with my body – and then dragged me over each of the steps leading into bus. At the door, another uniformed official without a badge grabbed me by the neck and pulled me into the bus this way, basically choking me.

Once in the bus, I demanded to see his ID. I repeated this demand about 100 times until he finally put his badge on. I copied the number and made an official complaint alleging cruel treatment and abuse of official authority.… Along with the other detainees on that bus, I was taken to a police precinct where they held us for around four hours. I was accused not only of breaking the rules for organizing public events but also of disobeying police orders.… I need to show up in [administrative] court on March 21.

OVD-Info told Human Rights Watch that most of those detained on February 21 spent several hours at various police precincts and were issued identical citations for alleged participation in an unauthorized gathering, pending administrative court hearings. Some were also cited for disobeying police orders. Police also released some of the detained from custody without citing them for any violations or providing a report on their detention.

Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s leading independent newspapers, told Human Rights Watch that after almost six hours in police custody without receiving a detention report or citation, she and several other detainees realized that the police officers were no longer paying attention to them and simply walked out.

Kostyuchenko said she saw police officials roughing up people by the courthouse during the detention process. In one example, Kostyuchenko said police dragged a woman of about 50 year old into the bus with particular roughness. When the woman, shocked by the treatment, said to police, “Would you want your mother treated this way?” an officer answered back, “I’ll bugger you if you don’t keep your mouth shut!”

Grigory Frolov was held at a police precinct until about midnight. He told Human Rights Watch:

At around 3:30 p.m. police began forming a tight ring and advancing on the crowd. I was standing next to several journalists and talking to them. Some police officers actually told us it was time for us to leave because they were tired…. I … started to walk away. But I only managed to make two steps before they [the police] roped me in. They dragged me into a police bus, which was pretty full, and the bus circled the city for a long time until we [19 people] were finally delivered to a police precinct in the outskirts of Moscow. They held us there until nearly midnight and issued identical rubber-stamp citations for violating regulations for organizing public events.… I’ve got a [administrative] court date on March 20.

Ivan I. (not his real name) told Human Rights Watch that police citations issued to all 15 people he was detained with said they were holding posters with a sign reading, “He who convicts the innocent is filth in the eyes of the Lord.” In fact, only one of these 15 people held that poster.

February 24, Moscow
On February 24, a judge sentencedthe eight Bolotnaya protesters to prison terms ranging from two-and-a-half to four years.

By noon, hundreds of people spontaneously gathered at the courthouse. As on February 21, police blocked the streets surrounding the courthouse. Numerous police buses were parked nearby. Police made repeated announcements through a loudspeaker that the gathering was unsanctioned and that everyone had to leave. According to OVD-Info, in the next few hours police detained over 230 people.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three people detained on February 24 who said that the police randomly singled out people in the crowd and dragged them to police buses. Most of the detained were held at police precincts for several hours and charged with participation in an unauthorized gathering or, in some cases, disobeying police orders.

A young man told Human Rights Watch:

What makes me feel especially bitter is that I did not do anything. I did not have a poster. I did not shout slogans.… My friend and I simply stood there among other people.… When they [the police] led me to the bus, one of them punched me on the back. The bus soon arrived at a police precinct and there were 10 police lieutenants there processing the detainees. We all got charged with participation in an unauthorized event. By 6 or 7 p.m. everyone was released pending an [administrative] hearing.…

In early evening more people attempted to gather at Manezhnaya Square, about 500 meters from the Kremlin, but found the square closed off by police, with over a dozen detention vehicles parked nearby. The protesters positioned themselves on nearby Tverskaya Street and stood there peacefully. They were not blocking traffic, as police had blocked off the street in advance. Police urged them to disperse, alleging that the gathering was unauthorized. Some people left, but the majority stayed.

According to OVD-Info, police detained 430 people on Tverskaya Street that evening and took them to various precincts across Moscow, where the majority were issued citations for participating in an unauthorized gathering and some for disobeying police orders.

All three people Human Rights Watch interviewed said that many of the detainees were given identical citations, with dozens of people detained separately accused of shouting the same slogan or holding the same poster. On February 25 an administrative court sentenced Alexei Navalny – a leading political opposition activist who was detained near the courthouse on February 24 – to seven days of administrative detention for disobeying police orders. Navalny’s police citation, which was presented in court, said that he had “shouted,” “flailed his arms,” refused to leave “the unauthorized gathering,” and refused to cooperate with police officials.

Navalny’s lawyer presented several videos shot by different people that clearly showed that he was neither shouting nor waving his arms and that he fully cooperated with police officials and calmly proceeded to the police bus. Human Rights Watch examined the videos and found them convincing. One of the police officers involved in his detention testified in court that Navalny did not resist in any way. The judge ignored all this evidence and ruled for Navalny’s administrative detention based on the inaccurate police report.

On February 28 a Moscow court ruled that once Navalny is released from the administrative prison facility, he must be transferred to house arrest pending trial on alleged misappropriation of funds from a company. The case against him on this charge, which Navalny called “trumped-up,” has been ongoing since October 2013. Until the court ruling on house arrest, Navalny had been at liberty on his own recognizance. He is presently under house arrest.

Nadezhda Mityushkina, an activist with the Solidarity opposition movement, was detained and released without citation by the courthouse and detained again on Tverskaya Street:

I stood on Tverskaya Street next to Boris Nemtsov [prominent opposition politician and one of the leaders of Solidarity], who was being interviewed by journalists.… Close to 8 p.m. police officers surrounded Nemtsov and led him to a detention bus. I followed them along with a few others because we did not want to abandon Nemtsov. And when we came up to the bus one of the police officers just told me to get in. So I did.

The bus stopped at by the Tverskaya police precinct, the police led Nemtsov out, looked over the others detained on the bus, and then led me out as well. We spent the night in custody and were sentenced to administrative detention under article 19.3 [disobedience of police orders].

A court sentenced Mityushkina to 10 days of administrative detention for disobeying police orders. “Police wrote in my citation that I ‘flailed [my] arms … and behaved aggressively,’ which is absolute nonsense, but the judge wouldn’t listen [to me],” Mityushkina told Human Rights Watch.

When interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Mityushkina had already served her 10 days and was trying to appeal the original court ruling.

February 24, St. Petersburg
Small, unsanctioned gatherings in support of the Bolotnaya prisoners also took place in St. Petersburg on February 21 and February 24. On both days, several hundred people peacefully gathered in the city center on the corner of Nevsky Avenue and Malaya Sadovaya Street. Police did not interfere on February 21. On February 24, police dispersed the gathering and, according to official reports, detained over 60 people.

The February 24 gathering began at around 7 p.m. According to media reports and witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed, between 300 and 500 people gathered for the rally. There was a heavy police presence. Police used loudspeakers to urge the participants to disperse as their gathering was unauthorized. Then police started randomly detaining people, either leading or dragging them to detention buses.

Elena Petukhova, who took part in the rally, told Human Rights Watch that “like many others,” she was “grabbed [by police],” though she merely “stood there quietly and had no poster.”

Petukhova counted four or five detention buses holding different numbers of protesters. There were 32 people on her bus, some of whom told her that the circumstances of their detentions had been similar to hers. The bus stopped first at police precinct no. 78, but the precinct appeared to be full of detainees and could not accommodate additional people. The bus then moved on to precinct no. 52, to which 16 of the detainees were transferred. The rest were finally delivered to precinct no. 22.

After over three hours at the police precinct, Petukhova complained to police that under Russian law the authorities no longer had the right to hold her or any of the others in custody without charge. Police officials ignored her complaints. Using her cell phone, she then called the Interior Ministry’s internal complaints agency, but the official who took the call flatly refused to register her complaint. When she tried to argue, the official hung up on her saying, “If you want to tell someone what to do, tell your husband!”

Petukhova said that police officials at the precinct were rude, wore no identification badges, and did not allow her to write in her disagreement with the citation, which people have the right to do under Russian law. Later that evening, police released five of the detained, including one minor, without charges.

All of the remaining protesters, including Petukhova, were cited for participating in an unauthorized gathering and disobeying police orders. They then spent the night in custody, pending administrative court hearings scheduled for 11 a.m. the next day. In the morning, police put them on a detention bus, which arrived at the courthouse at about noon and was there until 6 p.m. The detained spent all that time crowded on the bus, without being allowed to use the toilet. Police ignored their repeated complaints. Finally, at around 6 p.m., police opened the door of the bus and told everyone to go home, without explanation.

According to OVD-Info, on the evening of February 24, police in St. Petersburg arbitrarily detained at least 62 protesters. Some of the detained were released without being charged. Others were released pending trial for participation in an unsanctioned gathering or disobidience to police.

Detentions and Harassment of Protesters at Antiwar Rallies
On March 1, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament approved President Putin’s request to authorize the use of Russian forces in Ukraine to protect Russian nationals on Ukrainian territory. On March 2, antiwar rallies took place in Moscow and several other Russian cities.

The government responded with mass detentions of antiwar protesters. In some cases far-right groups attacked or threatened protesters with absolute impunity. In several cases the attacks were in full view of police, who did not interfere.

Detained protesters were charged with participating in unauthorized gatherings and disobeying police orders. Most are awaiting administrative court hearings. Some have been fined and – in a few cases – sentenced to administrative detention of up to 15 days.

Russian law requires organizers of public gatherings to notify local authorities of their intention to hold a rally at least three days in advance. These rules make it impossible for people to lawfully hold gatherings in urgent circumstances such as those on March 1, when the unfolding events came as a shock to many people and municipal institutions were closed for the weekend.

Notably, a mass pro-Kremlin rally “in support of the Ukrainian people and against the provocateurs who usurped power in Kiev” took place in Moscow on March 2, with 27,000 people in attendance, according to official reports. It is not known how they obtained permission to hold the rally on such short notice. Several lower-level municipal officials and schoolteachers told Human Rights Watch that their respective directors required them to participate, referring to “orders from the top.” Similar mass rallies in support of Russia’s approval of military force in Ukraine took place in other large cities on the same day. Media reports said that in St. Petersburg a local independent teachers’ union alleged that school administrators forced teachers to participate.

March 2 and 4, Moscow
On the afternoon of March 2 more than 1,000 antiwar protesters, according to media reports, gathered at Manezhnaya Square and by the Defense Ministry building in Moscow. Both gatherings were peaceful. Some protesters held posters reading, “Hands off Ukraine!” or “Peace to the World.” Some others shouted, “Say no to war!” and other slogans. Police ordered them to disperse, saying that the gatherings were not authorized, and began detaining people at random. According to OVD-Info, police officials detained at least 231 people at Manezhnaya Square and at least 130 near the Defense Ministry. Police officers who carried out detentions wore no identification badges.

As on February 21 and 24, police packed detained protesters into buses and took them to several precincts in Moscow. Most spent several hours in custody, while police officers issued identical citations accusing them of participating in an unauthorized gathering and, in some cases, disobeying police orders. While the majority of those detained on March 2 were released the same day pending administrative hearings, Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases in which the detained spent the night in police custody and were sentenced to administrative detention by a court the next morning.

On March 4, antiwar activists made another attempt to hold a protest rally next to the Defense Ministry. Police dispersed the gathering and, according to OVD-Info, detained at least 43 people. Most spent the day in custody and were cited for participating in an authorized gathering or disobeying police orders. Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, said that nine had administrative court hearings the next morning, in which judges sentenced them to 10 days of administrative detention. In one case, police refused to give a person they were holding medicine he needed to prevent epileptic seizures.

Kostyuchenko told Human Rights Watch that late at night on March 5 she discovered that an administrative court had sentenced two of her friends – Reyda Linn and Niks Nameni, both detained on March 4 – to 10 days of administrative detention. Kostyuchenko packed a bag for her friends with food, clothing, and Nameni’s epilepsy medication and went to the police precinct on the outskirts of Moscow where her friends were being held, along with the seven others.

I got there around 1 a.m., and after a while a police officer took the bag from me, but then his boss came out and started yelling that no parcels were allowed at night and no one should be talking to me. When I started to argue he ordered another officer to throw me out and they did it – and then threw the bag after me. I was screaming that Niks could have an epileptic attack if he doesn’t take his pills and in case he has one in his sleep he can die.… They didn’t listen.

So, I called the medical emergency number and explained the situation to the doctor on duty. She got very concerned and said that she’ll send an ambulance straight away because indeed, the man could have an attack and die without his medication. The ambulance arrived around 3 a.m. but the police did not let them in.… They said they saw no need. The ambulance eventually left and I stayed there. At 7 a.m. police officials finally took the bag from me, though they threw out tangerines and some basic hygiene supplies, saying, “If they are allowed to enjoy special comforts they’re likely to think that their antics can go unpunished!”

March 2, St. Petersburg
On March 2 around 400 peaceful antiwar protestors gathered at Isaakievskaya Square in central St. Petersburg. According to OVD-Info, police detained at least 31 of them, including Stefania Kulaeva, a prominent local human rights defender. Police released the activists, who had been taken to various police precincts, several hours later pending administrative court hearings.

Police officers detained people at random, wore no badges, and issued nearly identical citations.

As the protesters attempted to hold the rally, they were attacked by dozens of pro-government activists including Vitaly Milonov, a member of the St. Petersburg legislative assembly. In her open letter to the legislative assembly, published on March 5, Kulaeva wrote:

There were aggressive men in black with St. George ribbons [black and orange ribbons symbolic of Russia’s highest military honor] pinned to their clothes, who attacked [demonstrators]. They snatched the posters … tore them into pieces, spit in people’s faces, and resorted to violence. Deputy Vitaly Milonov … pointed me out to his associates…. [Then] a tall … man … snatched the placard out of my hands, tore it apart.… I saw how other peaceful demonstrators had their posters torn into pieces, how they were slapped in the face, pushed around and cursed.

This was happening in the presence of numerous police officers and prosecutors, but our attempts to draw the officials’ attention to the[se] unlawful actions were futile. They [the police] were detaining us, though we weren’t breaking the law in any way….

Kulaeva asked the legislative assembly of St. Petersburg to look into the issue but has received no response.

March 10, Chita
Early in the afternoon of March 10 a pro-Kremlin rally in support of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine took place in Chita, 6,200 kilometers east of Moscow. Two local activists, Natalia Filonova and Marina Savvateeva, decided to hold one-person pickets right before and after this pro-governmental rally.

Under Russian law, a person can picket individually without notifying local authorities in advance. Yet police detained Filonova, pushed her and stood on her while she was in custody, and cited her for allegedly disobeying police orders. A court later sentenced her to10 days of administrative detention.

Savvateeva, who is Filonova’s public defender in her administrative case and spoke to Filonova in the detention center, told Human Rights Watch:

Natalia came to Lenin Square [in the city center] an hour before the planned rally with a poster, “Putin is an aggressor.” She handed out [antiwar] flyers to people. Suddenly, police officials surrounded her and forced her into their mini-van. “It’s for your own safety,” they insisted. They left her there, turning the heat up full force.… It became suffocating and Natalia fell unwell. She asked the police to either turn off the heat or open a window. They refused.

So, she got up and tried to open the window – and they jumped at her. A big, heavy policeman pushed her into a corner and then to the floor. When she was flat on the floor, another policeman stood on her chest. Natalia fainted.… They took her to the precinct and … presented her attempt to open the window as “disobedience of police orders.” They said she was “aggressive” and “waved her arms around.” The judge sided with them and gave her 10 days. She is already serving her sentence but she’s appealing that unjust ruling.

Activists Harassed and Prevented from Holding an Antiwar Rally in Voronezh
In Voronezh, 530 kilometers south of Moscow, a dozen local activists attempted to hold an antiwar demonstration on March 2 in the city’s “Hyde Park” – a specially designated area where public gatherings can be conducted without prior notification of local authorities. They posted information about the planned rally on Facebook and immediately got a range of threatening comments from local nationalists and anonymous users, including death threats. Nevertheless the activists proceeded with their plan but were chased away by unidentified aggressive men. Police were present but did nothing to protect the activists and ignored their pleas for help.

One of the protesters, Marina Gordeeva, told Human Rights Watch:

We gathered as planned at 2 p.m. There were 10 of us and 4 held antiwar posters.… Police arrived and said that they were supposedly alerted to the fact that our posters were of a “questionable nature.” They were jotting down the slogans on our posters. At that point, around 30 burly men showed up. They wore St. George ribbons and carried portraits of Putin.… One of them tore the posters from our hands. Another one yelled, “Shame on you! How much are they [enemies of Russia] paying you?” They screamed and cursed us. We tried to get the police to intervene. We called on them, “Can’t you see what’s going on! Help!” However, they pretended not to notice. In another 15 minutes we just couldn’t deal with it anymore and left – it was simply not safe for us to continue.

Attacks at and Kidnapping of Antiwar Activists in Petrozavodsk
A group of civil society activists in Petrozavodsk, 1091 kilometers north of Moscow, were planning to hold an antiwar gathering at the local “Hyde Park” on March 9 at 2 p.m. On the evening before, two of the main organizers and their friend decided to get together in the suburban house where one of them lived. They rode the bus together and got off the bus at around 6:30 p.m. One of the three told Human Rights Watch that as soon as the bus drove away, 8 or 10 men in face masks jumped out of two cars and attacked them. The attack lasted for about three minutes, with the assailants kicking them and punching them in the face and yelling, “This will show you how to hold rallies! So, you want to give our Crimea away to fascists.” The assailants got back into their cars and left, leaving their victims behind with multiple bruises. One of the victims also suffered a fracture and a broken tooth.

The same person told Human Rights Watch that he spoke with four other activists who were assaulted the next day at about 1:30 p.m. The four were heading toward the picketing site when a group of about 10 assailants in face masks forced the activists into two vehicles (a car and a minibus), took them outside of the city limits into a forest area, beat them viciously, and threatened to kill them. Finally, the assailants threw their victims out of the car in the middle of the forest and drove away.

One of the victims of the first attack told Human Rights Watch:

Because of that beating on March 8, I had a broken tooth and a fractured cheekbone (the doctor just told me it’s fractured, not just bruised). So, I wasn’t feeling well the next day and did not go anywhere. But those who got kidnapped were my friends and they told me in detail how they were forced into those cars and taken to a forest 40-45 kilometers from the city. On the way, those thugs in masks kept telling them that they’re taking them to their future gravesite and will make them dig their own graves. They also kicked and cursed our guys. The ride took from 30 to 40 minutes.

Once in the forest, they stopped the cars, led one of the guys out, and beat him with police truncheons and chains wrapped in plastic. Then, they drove farther into the forest, and beat the second one, and the third one.… All four were beaten viciously. They mostly used rubber truncheons and they tore branches off the trees and whipped them with the branches. They [the kidnappers] kept threatening to cripple them, to kill them. Finally, they just left them in the forest and they found a road and made their way back to the city.

We’re all afraid of filing an official complaint because the attacks were so well organized we are scared the police was somehow involved. We did go to a local clinic and got medical documents confirming the injuries but we just don’t have the nerve to take it further.…

As the victims of these two vicious attacks were the key organizers of the planned antiwar rally, the event did not take place.

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