(Moscow) – Police arbitrarily detained hundreds of peaceful protesters, including older people and children, taking part in demonstrations across Russia on September 9, Human Rights Watch said today. The detainees were protesting corruption and government plans to raise the pension age. In many cities, the police kicked peaceful protesters and beat them with truncheons.
Human Rights Watch interviewed five people arrested during the protests in St. Petersburg, including two children, ages 16 and 17, and an 80-year old man. Human Rights Watch also reviewed images, video footage, and media reports from the rallies.
“The government’s strong-arm response is a warning to Russians that the government doesn’t want them to protest plans for the pension system, or to protest anything else,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nevertheless, people have a right to express their views about pension reform, which will have direct, personal impact, or any other issue of public interest, including by peacefully taking to the streets to do so.”
Protestors who were beaten by police sustained injuries, including bruising, abrasions, fractures, and concussions. A widely shared video shows a member of parliament, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, hitting a protester in Moscow in the face, saying, “I’m telling you right now, I’ll hit you in the skull until you bleed.”
According to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors arbitrary detentions and police abuse, law enforcement officers detained at least 1,195 people, including at least 60 children, across 39 cities. At least 623 people were arrested in St. Petersburg and 184 in Ekaterinburg. Police also detained at least 14 journalists who were covering the protests and beat at least three of them.
Most of those detained received court orders to pay fines, starting at 5,000 rubles (about US$72), or to complete up to 120 hours of community service, or sentences of up to 15 days detention. One supporter of Alexei Navalny, the political opposition leader who had called for nationwide protests, was sentenced to the maximum 300,000 ruble (US$4,306) fine by a court in Tambov.
Human Rights Watch interviewed four people in St. Petersburg who were rounded up between 5:30 and 6 p.m., as police encircled protesters on the Pirogovskaya Embankment. They were taken to various police stations.
One of them was a 17-year-old boy who said that he was terrified as the police cordoned off the crowd into several rings and forced him into one of them. “They were pushing us from all sides, and beat people who tried to resist,” he said.
A 21-year-old woman said she was not one of the protesters but was caught up in a police encirclement on the embankment. Police kept the crowd tightly squeezed together for about an hour, during which she saw a man pass out and several women who appeared to be having panic attacks. Police did not call for medical help, she said.
The people interviewed said the police packed protesters into overcrowded buses, and three of them, each on a different bus, said they were driven around for about four hours, then taken to police stations for processing. The young woman said that when a young man on her bus got sick during the ride, police dragged him out to the sidewalk, where he lay until an ambulance came about 20 minutes later.
The 80-year-old man who was interviewed said that he left the main protest near Lenin Square around 2:40 p.m. and stopped a few streets away. He formed a single-person-protest, wearing a hat with photos and slogans protesting the pension reform. Five minutes after he began his individual protest, police detained him. He said police pushed him onto a bus, after which he became ill and had to be taken directly to a hospital, where he underwent tests and was released the same evening.
None of the protesters interviewed said they saw police maltreat other protestors at the stations. The 16-year-old boy said he saw at least 17 other children, including four who were the same age as him, in the police station where he was taken to wait for a charge sheet.
His arrest report was drawn up only after his parents arrived at the station, and he was released before midnight.
Police released the 17-year-old boy at 11:30 p.m. The next day, the boy observed some of the court hearings, and said he witnessed one judge warning detainees that raising objections would increase their penalties.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a young woman and a 35-year-old man who spent the night at the police station, and the next day were fined in one case 10,000 rubles (US$145) and 15,000 rubles (US$217) in the other.
The protests coincided with local elections in 80 regions. Local authorities in 12 cities permitted the protests to takes place, but 59 other cities refused permission. The St. Petersburg local authorities at first authorized a rally there but withdrew permission three days beforehand, claiming that there was a damaged water pipe near the approved site.
In early August, Navalny had called for nationwide protests against raising the retirement age. On August 25, police detained him for organizing “Voter’s Strike” rallies in January to boycott the presidential election. On August 27, a court found him guilty of repeated violations of regulations on public gatherings and sentenced him to 30 days in jail.
Between September 4 and 9, police detained at least 48 other activists in 20 cities, including nine coordinators with Navalny’s regional offices. Most had to spend a night at a police station, and 14 were charged with misdemeanors, including swearing in public and public rally violations. Authorities also pressed criminal charges against 25-year-old Navalny supporter, Taras Loboychenko from Chelyabinsk, for allegedly calling for public riots. If convicted, Loboychenko faces up to three years in prison.
“Rounding up peaceful protesters violates fundamental human rights, even if the demonstration wasn’t pre-authorized,” Williamson said. “It’s also very unlikely to persuade people that the government’s pension reforms are being made in their best interests.”