Update May 21:
On May 20 Russia’s State Duma adopted amendments in the first reading.
(Moscow) – Russia’s State Duma should drop proposed amendments that would further restrict the law on public gatherings, Human Rights Watch said today. The draconian amendments and other recent pernicious legislative initiatives to suppress critics of the government take Russia even farther astray from its international human rights obligations.
The proposed amendments, submitted by the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament on March 31, 2014, would increase the already significant fines for violating rules on holding public events and provide that a participant of an unauthorized public gathering can be punished by administrative arrest, and, if a repeat offender of the rules, can be subject to criminal sanctions. According to the amendments, “repeated violations of the established order of organization or conduction of a gathering, rally, demonstration, march, or picket” would constitute a criminal offense punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. The penalty would apply to those who have been sentenced for organizing or participating in an unauthorized public gathering more than twice in 180 calendar days.
“The Russian authorities want to criminalize public criticism,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director. “They’re threatening peaceful demonstrators with prison time.”
Russia’s law on demonstrations was last amended in 2012, when large fines for violating rules on public events were imposed to discourage participation in protest rallies. The idea of imposing criminal sanctions on those who repeatedly violate the rules for public gatherings was first floated at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the parliament’s upper chamber on March 27, 2014.
The three State Duma deputies who offered the amendments just three days after the meeting included Alexander Sidyakin, author of the infamous 2012 law on “foreign agents,” which demonizes independent advocacy groups as foreign spies. In a TV Rain interview on April 1, 2014, Sidyakin contended that criminal liability would apply only to organizers of unauthorized protests, not regular participants, and only in cases in which the organizers’ actions represent a threat to public infrastructure. However, the text of the draft amendment does not include such limiting provisions and would apply broadly to all repeat participants in unauthorized protests.
In their official explanatory note, the authors of the draft law say that the new amendments are necessary to protect society and the public order from dangers caused by unauthorized gatherings. Trying to justify the need for tougher sanctions, they say that many people have been fined repeatedly for breaking the rules for public events, but nevertheless continue to be involved in unauthorized gatherings.
The right to freedom of assembly has increasingly been under attack in Russia, Human Rights Watch said. Police frequently disperse peaceful public rallies by civil society activists and the political opposition, sometimes using unnecessary or excessive force. In February, in what has evolved into Russia’s biggest political trial, a Moscow court sentenced eight participants in the May 6, 2012, anti-Putin rally at Bolotnaya Square to prison terms ranging from two-and-a-half to four years on unjustified charges of mass rioting and violence against the police.
The official legal process for organizing a public rally only requires notification to the local authorities, including the time, place, and estimated number of participants, but not receipt of a permit from the authorities. However, in practice the authorities often refuse to sanction protests, using various pretexts and suggesting alternative, less prominent locations to organizers. This practice pushes organizers to hold “unauthorized” demonstrations and to face detention and administrative punishments for violating the rules or for not complying with police orders.
The draft amendments propose a new article for Russia’s criminal code, under which those who are found guilty of organizing or participating in unauthorized gatherings more than twice during a period of 180 days could be fined up to one million rubles (US$27,800) or sent to prison for up to five years.
The draft amendments also introduce the possibility of administrative arrest for up to 10 days for unauthorized participation in public gatherings and up to 15 days for obstruction of traffic and social infrastructure. The current sanctions for these administrative violations are limited to fines.
The amendments provide for up to 30 days of administrative arrest for participants in public gatherings who are repeatedly accused of refusing to obey police orders. Presently, Russia’s administrative law allows for up to 30 days of administrative arrest solely as a sanction for breaking the emergency situation rules or the counterterrorism operation rules; administrative arrest as punishment for all other types of violations does not exceed 15 days.
The amendments would impose fines of up to 300,000 rubles (US$8,350) and up to 20 days of administrative arrest for organizing public gatherings next to railroads, oil and gas pipelines, border zones, court buildings, prisons, and other places of detention.
“This provision seems to be a reaction to recent spontaneous peaceful gatherings by the Zamoskvoretsky courthouse in Moscow to support the Bolotnaya Square protesters who were on trial,” Williamson said. “Though the sanction is supposedly only applicable to ‘organizers,’ in reality any participant in a spontaneous protest – especially those who use social networks to call their friends to join them – could be labeled ‘organizers’ of those gatherings.”
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Russian constitution, as well as in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), treaties to which Russia is a party. Article 11 of the ECHR states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others.” Article 21 of the ICCPR states that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, the freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that a person cannot be subject to a sanction – even a minor one – for participation in a demonstration that has not been prohibited, so long as this person does not commit an act of violence or similar crime. The court has also emphasized that an unlawful situation does not justify an infringement of freedom of assembly. The court said that in instances in which demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, it is important for the public authorities to show tolerance toward peaceful gatherings for freedom of assembly to have real meaning.
“The amendments, if adopted – especially the provision on criminal liability for those who repeatedly violate the rules on public events – would negate freedom of assembly as enshrined in international law,” Williamson said.