Protesters assembled around Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow on March 26, 2017. 

© 2017 Andrei Soldatov

(Moscow) – The authorities in numerous cities across Russia have harassed and intimidated schoolchildren and university students who participated in anti-corruption demonstrations on March 26, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials also harassed and intimidated parents for allowing children to take part in protests.

“Rather than responding to legitimate public demands for accountable government, the Russian authorities are trying to quash the voices of the next generation of voters,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The opinions of children and young adults matter, and the government should listen to their concerns, not silence them.”

People in more than 90 Russian cities gathered peacefully on March 26 to protest government corruption. An unexpectedly large number of children and young adults participated.

The authorities’ lesson to Russia’s young people seems to be, ‘Speak your mind, and you’ll be punished.’

Hugh Williamson

Europe and Central Asia director

In many cities, local officials did not authorize the rallies. Police across Russia arrested hundreds of demonstrators, including many young adults and children under 18. In Moscow alone, authorities arrested 70 children, the majority of whom police questioned, with some facing administrative charges. All were released after several hours. Human Rights Watch documented at least two cases in which the charges were patently groundless. In cases Human Rights Watch documented, authorities tried to contact children directly to call them in for questioning, although the law requires delivering an official summons to a child’s parents or guardian if the police want to question the child.

The protest movement was led by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and who plans to run for president in Russia’s 2018 elections. Navalny has announced another set of rallies for June 12.

Two Moscow lawyers who represented some of the children detained at the March 26 demonstrations told Human Rights Watch in two cases, police authorities compelled juvenile affairs police inspectors to charge children with administrative violations, although the inspectors had determined that they had not committed any offense. The lawyers believed that this was part of broader pressure to charge as many people as possible in relation to the March 26 gathering.

In several cases, authorities either charged parents with “failure to execute child-rearing responsibilities,” an administrative violation, or sought to intimidate parents by threatening them with such charges. Human Rights Watch documented one case in which police and child protection authorities visited the home of a child who had participated in the rally, allegedly to check the living conditions.

University students in several cities told Human Rights Watch about threats, including of expulsion from school, and other retaliation for participation in anti-corruption rallies. In one case, senior university officials in a Russian far eastern city called a student three hours after he applied for a permit to hold a rally on March 26. After the deputy dean told him that he could face problems in his future studies and that “the FSB [Federal Security Bureau] would straighten [him] out,” the student withdrew the application.

Education officials in several towns required high school students to watch films criticizing Navalny during classes, or lectured them against participating in public demonstrations critical of the government. Several university students described similar sessions they were encouraged, but not required, to attend. Russian law prohibits using educational activities in schools to advance political agendas.

On May 24, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matvienko, suggested in a media interview that relevant parliamentary committees should discuss whether children should be banned altogether from unsanctioned gatherings. Citing the alleged ease with which online calls for such gatherings can lead to the endangerment of children, Matvienko said it was “unfair, cynical, and flouting moral and civic norms” to encourage children to participate in unsanctioned gatherings.

Russia, as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is obliged to respect freedom of assembly and expression for everyone, including those under age 18. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Russia is a party, specifically protects children’s rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

“Russian officials are trying to dampen activism among youth who are critical of the government,” Williamson said. “The authorities’ lesson to Russia’s young people seems to be, ‘Speak your mind, and you’ll be punished.’”

Groundless Administrative Charges, Intimidation of Children

Under Russian law, when police detain a child on allegations of administrative violations, a juvenile affairs police inspector questions the child, and can decide whether to charge them. If officers charge a child, the officer forwards the charge sheet to the office of the Minors’ Rights Commission (MRC, Russia’s child protection service) in the district where the child lives. The MRC holds a hearing on the charges and decides on penalties.

A lawyer representing “Danil,” not his real name, a tenth grade student, told Human Rights Watch that the boy joined a peaceful walk during the March 26 rally in Moscow’s city center. He neither shouted any slogans nor held a sign. The police detained Danil and took him to a police station, where a juvenile affairs police inspector questioned him. The officer found nothing illegal in his actions, but following orders from senior police officials not to release protesters without charges he charged Danil with creating a disturbance during a public gathering.

The Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society in the year since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency that is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.

The lawyer said that the juvenile affairs police inspector apologized to the family, and claimed she had no other choice but to draw up a charge sheet under Administrative Code Article 20.2 – regulations related to breaches of public assembly. In mid-May, the MRC found Danil had not violated the law, and closed the case.

A juvenile affairs police inspector questioned another high school student, “Alexei,” for more than the legally permissible two hours, after the police detained Alexei at the anti-corruption rally gathering in central Moscow. Alexei and Danil were held in different police stations.

Alexei’s family’s lawyer said that the juvenile affairs police inspector found no evidence that Alexei had done anything illegal at the rally and let him leave. But a senior policeman stopped Alexei and his parents on their way home and made them return to the police station. They phoned their lawyer, who immediately came to the police station. The lawyer said:

The police officer was furious, yelling in front of everyone that the . . . juvenile affairs police inspector officer committed a crime by letting Alexei leave the police station without a charge sheet. [The police officer said,] “Are you saying my policemen detained a boy for nothing?” Only after I argued with the police officers and reminded them [what the law says], did they let Alexei go home without any charges.

The lawyer believed the Investigative Committee (Russia’s criminal investigation service) had ordered police not to release anyone without charges. The lawyer had “heard about such orders from the Investigative Committee from my encounters with police officers in courtrooms.” Another lawyer described a document from the Investigative Committee she saw at a police station, dated two weeks after the March 26 demonstration, ordering police to question 63 of the 70 detained children regardless of whether they were charged.

In early May, another juvenile affairs police inspector officer drew up an administrative charge sheet against Alexei for participating in the March 26 gathering, in the absence of Alexei, his parents, or his lawyer. When the lawyer eventually saw the charge sheet and questioned its validity, the juvenile officer claimed, falsely, that Alexei had seen it but refused to sign it.

The MRC hearing is pending.

Moscow defense lawyers representing detained children said that police asked at least five schools to send character references and personal records for children who participated in the anti-corruption rallies, including Danil and Alexei. School staff complied. Police and Investigative Committee officials also questioned the schools’ teachers, principals, and psychologists about these children.

Administrative Charges, Intimidation of Parents

In some cases, authorities brought administrative charges against parents whose children participated in demonstrations. Representatives working with the Nizhnii Novgorod regional office for Navalny’s presidential bid told Human Rights Watch that authorities charged the parents of five children with “failure to execute child-rearing responsibilities,” an administrative violation, for putting their children at risk by allowing them to attend an unsanctioned gathering, even though the gathering was peaceful.

World Report 2017: Russia

World Report 2017: Russia

In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics. 

Their children were detained along with about four dozen other demonstrators at the unsanctioned anti-corruption rally organized by Navalny’s regional office in Nizhnii Novgorod. An office representative who had been in contact with the families and helped arrange legal counsel for them said that police fined at least two parents 100 to 500 rubles (US$1.70 to US$8.80). The representative had no information about whether the parents of the other three children were charged. The fines for failing to execute child-rearing responsibilities are quite low. However, being charged, or threatened with, this offense can be intimidating, as in certain severe circumstances failure to execute child-rearing responsibilities can, under Russian law, be considered grounds for termination of parental rights.

The defense lawyers representing detained children in Moscow reported that police and other officials in some cases questioned their clients and their clients’ families about their home and family life, apparently seeking information that could lead to administrative or other charges against parents, or seeking to intimidate parents by making them fear such charges.

“Michael,” 15, was detained briefly at the Moscow rally and charged with an administrative offense. Michael’s lawyer, said that an officer from the Minors’ Rights Commission (MRC) contacted Michael’s father nearly a month later, on April 19. The officer alleged that Michael had failed to respond to a summons, and that following an order from the Investigative Committee, police planned to send a police team to his school to forcibly bring Michael to the police station for questioning. Michael’s family, who had not received the summons, immediately called the lawyer, who called the police station. Police then called off the police team. Michael, his family, and the lawyer went to the police station for questioning the following day.

Michael’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the police officer asked questions that had no relation to Michael’s detention during the protest, but appeared to insinuate that the family was not fulfilling its responsibilities toward Michael:

I found it quite inappropriate when the police officer asked Michael if he is afraid of his parents, if he has enough food to eat, clearly hinting that Michael participated in the rallies to make some money.

In addition, police and MRC officers visited families of some children who participated in rallies, allegedly to check the living conditions in the children’s homes.

In one case, an officer phoned “Slava,” a high school student, on his mobile phone during school, told him to come to the station for questioning about his participation in the rally, and threatened to send a police squad to the school to bring him. Slava’s family lawyer said that when police called Slava’s father by way of notification of the intended questioning, the father insisted on a summons.

The family did not receive a summons. But a few days after the phone calls, investigative officials and MRC officers went to Slava’s house unannounced to have an “unofficial conversation” with the child and his parents and check the child’s living conditions, which they found satisfactory.

Media reports said that in the city of Vladimir, a deputy principal of a middle school warned students that political activists among them risked having authorities remove them from their families because their parents or guardians were not fulfilling their parental responsibilities. On April 26, the deputy principal went to the students’ regularly scheduled Russian language class and lectured them about consequences of participation in protests. One of the students recorded the deputy principal’s remarks. The deputy principle can be heard threatening a student who, with his grandmother, had participated in the March 26 rally in Vladimir:

You’ll be removed from your family [inaudible] and they can be denied their rights to bring you up! …Your grandmother had better be in my office tonight at 5:30. If not, I will come to her with rapid task police force and explain the situation to her… I will provide them [the rapid task police force] with facts and information, and they will take you away from your family on legal grounds.…

Human Rights Watch has no information about whether the boy’s grandmother went to the school or whether the deputy principal acted on any of her threats to the boy.

Intimidation of University Students

Authorities in several Russian cities harassed, intimidated, or threatened to expel university students who participated in the rallies or planned to participate.

On the afternoon of March 16, “Sergei,” a 27-year-old university student in a city in Russia’s far east, and his two friends filed an application with local authorities to hold an anti-corruption rally on March 26. Three hours later, Sergei received a call from the university’s deputy dean with questions about the application. Sergei clarified that he wanted to demonstrate peacefully against government corruption. A few minutes later, a higher university official, the provost, called Sergei:

I was told my application for a rally will cost the university good relations with the regional authorities. She [the provost] also indicated that I might face troubles with my studies and repeatedly asked whether as a matter of principle I would refuse to withdraw my rally application. Very soon, the deputy dean contacted me again to warn me that the Federal Security Service [FSB] would straighten me out.

After the deputy dean’s second phone call, Sergei and his friends immediately went to city hall to withdraw the rally application. Sergei said that his friends, who study at a different university, asked him not to tell anyone that they had supported his permit application.

On March 26, “George,” 20, and a fellow university student went to a demonstration in St. Petersburg, where police detained about 130 protesters. During the rally, police special forces detained George and his acquaintance and put them in a police car with six other people. The two men spent approximately 40 minutes in the severely overcrowded car before they were taken to the police station, where they were held for another seven hours before being released without charge. George said: “We all received identical charge sheets that described how one and the same policeman detained all of us for shouting the same slogans and disturbing public order.”

The next day, one of the university’s deans told George that the dean did not need a “headache” with his students going to rallies. The university’s provost for academic work and discipline ordered George to meet with a police official from the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism (commonly known as Center E) to discuss the situation. George said:

The officer asked what I know about [Alexei] Navalny, whether I watched his documentary about [corruption implicating Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev and whether I engage in politics. He also asked me to write in detail about what happened during the rally, but I referred to Article 51 of the [Russian] Constitution [freedom from self-incrimination] and refused. He asked to take my photo, but I refused this too.

George had no further communication with the authorities regarding his participation in the rally.

Political Propaganda at Schools, Universities

A media report said that on April 18, several dozen university students in Vladimir were required to attend an anti-extremism lecture that state university officials organized instead of regularly scheduled classes. A publicly available video made by one of the students showed the head of the regional government agency for fighting extremism among youth lecturing the students, after showing a film that compared Navalny to Hitler and described Navalny’s alleged “criminal past.” Officials refused the students’ request to show a documentary on alleged corruption among Russian authorities or to present an alternative view to the film criticizing Navalny, by saying: “What other view do you still need?”

In an interview with TV Rain, a local journalist said that he contacted the university official to make sure that the students who argued with the lecturer would not face retaliation. The official responded by saying that “if this guy is such an anti-government fighter, then shouldn’t he be ready to face the consequences?”

On March 30, about 1,500 university students were told classes were cancelled so that they could attend a public anti-extremism forum in the city of Samara. A student who attended the forum, “Andrei,” said that students were not obligated to attend, but that some did, along with university personnel. Forum participants watched the movie “No to Extremism,” which the Samara regional Education Ministry described as being aimed to “prevent mass disorder and unlawful, extremist actions among youth, and prevent involvement of the students in extremist-terrorist organizations, radical civil and political unions of destructive orientation.”

Students also listened to speeches by regional authorities, who accused Navalny and his organization of lying and inciting people to commit crimes. When Andrei started to sing a satirical song about the regional governor in the midst of his speech, the police removed him from the auditorium. Andrei said:

I [have a disability]. I wanted to complain to the authorities about our destroyed roads, where I slip into puddles all the time. When I started to sing my song, the [governor] said that I “was sent” to prevent him saying what he had to say. The next day, my faculty dean called me to his office for the first time in four years.

When the dean saw that Andrei had a disability, he merely asked Andrei how he was getting along.

On the first week of April, a teacher in Samara showed her class the same film, “No to Extremism,” rated for viewing by people only 16 and over, even though her class included 15-year-olds. In an audio recording made by one of the students, the teacher is heard shouting at a student who had participated in the local anti-corruption rally, “Aggressive rallies spread aggression! You want aggression? You’ve got aggression!” and threw him out of the class, at one point pushing him. Samara Education Ministry documents say that the teacher later apologized to the student and his parents. The prosecutor’s office found the showing of the film unlawful because it was shown to children under 16.

The principal of a high school in Tolyatti also showed his students “No to Extremism” and warned them about participating in the June 12 rally. One of the students recorded the principal speaking about “ideological war” against Russia and “paid” organizers who want to destabilize the country from inside.

Media reported that on March 30, in the city of Tomsk, a high school teacher dedicated an entire class to lecturing students about the protest movement and called those who support Navalny “betrayers, traitors, and liberal-fascists.” A university lecturer in the same town started talking about anti-corruption rallies during a regular class, called those who spoke at the anti-corruption rally in Tomsk “freaks,” and suggested that the demonstrators were paid. In a video made by one of the students and posted to YouTube, a teacher can be seen telling students that if they want to make money, they should choose methods that would not discredit them in the future.

In mid-April, a principal and a teacher in one middle school in the city of Bryansk lectured students about “true patriotism” during school hours and suggested teenagers should clean up city streets instead of joining a demonstration. Some of the students in the class had participated in the March 26 rally in Bryansk. To discourage students from attending future protests, the teacher and principal warned that anti-corruption rallies might bring Russia “back to the wild nineties,” when “everyone…had a gun…[and] it was scary to go outside after 8 p.m.”

Under international human rights law, the right to education is to be enjoyed without discrimination on any grounds such as political or other opinion. While parents may be allowed to choose an education model for their children that takes into account the child’s and parent’s religious or philosophical convictions, it is not compatible with the right to non-discrimination in education for the state to use the classroom for partisan political coercion.

This principle is reflected in Article 48 of Russia’s Federal Law on Education, which forbids teaching staff “to use educational activities for political agitation, the coercion of students to accept political, religious or other beliefs or to reject them.”

Methodology

In April and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed three university students and three defense lawyers representing children detained during the protests. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a student rights ombudsman regarding treatment of university students who participated in the March 26 demonstrations. The interviews included people from six cities in Russia. All university students interviewed requested anonymity fearing possible retaliation from the university administration.