Ivan Luzin at the table with his lawyer Aleksandr Dobralsky in the Tsentralny District Court in Kaliningrad, February 25, 2019. 

© 2019 Navalny’s Office in Kaliningrad

(Moscow) – Russian authorities should quash the convictions and sentences against Ivan Luzin, an 18-year-old law student punished for “organizing an unsanctioned protest” and for involving two 16-year-olds in the protest, Human Rights Watch said today. His prosecution and the fines imposed violate the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. Luzin, a member of the unregistered Libertarian Party of Russia, is the first person in Russia to be punished under a 2018 law prohibiting anyone from involving children in an unauthorized protest.

On March 25, 2019, the Tsentralny District Court in Kaliningrad, in western Russia, fined Luzin 30,000 Russian rubles (US$467) under the new law. On March 15 it fined him 20,000 Russian rubles (US$312) for “organizing an unsanctioned protest.” Both charges stem from a photo shoot to raise awareness about torture in Russia. At 5:30 p.m. on February 7, Luzin and the two 16-year-olds, Alina Sevtsova and Nastya Lebednitskaya, organized the shoot in Kaliningrad’s central square.

“The Russian authorities have found a new way to crack down on peaceful assembly, trying to prevent the next generation from forming democratic habits early in life” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Luzin’s sentence should be quashed immediately, and these ridiculous provisions scrapped”.

On February 28, at a meeting at the Russian Interior Ministry, President Vladimir Putin called on the Ministry to “vigorously put an end” to activities of groups that attempt to involve young people in unauthorized protests.

Luzin told RFE/RL that he initially wanted to hold a single-person protest, but that Sevtsova and Lebednitskaya, friends of his, came to join him. The group took three pictures of Sevtsova and Lebednitskaya with two posters in front of the city hall.

The trio wanted to raise awareness about the cases of a right-wing activist, Aleksandr Orshulevich, 30, and a left-wing activist, Viktor Filinkov, 25. Reports in the Russian media said that law enforcement authorities had allegedly tortured the two men in detention. The posters used in the photo shoot included the activists’ names, their ages, and how the authorities allegedly tortured them.

During one of the court hearings, Luzin said that he “only wanted to share information” and attract “public attention” to the topic of torture in Russia, which he learned about from the news. The Libertarian party and a youth pro-democratic movement, Vesna, had proposed organizing street actions against torture. Similar actions had been organized in other Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

After the 10-minute photo shoot, the group went to a café nearby. As they were leaving, at around 7 p.m., police officers approached them. Luzin told Human Rights Watch that there were up to eight officers, including two in civilian clothes. Luzin’s lawyer, Aleksander Dobralsky, said that the officers didn’t identify themselves but just told the group that they had to go with them to a police station. Dobralsky told Human Rights Watch that the police detained Luzin because of an alleged anonymous complaint.

In the car on the way to the station, one of the police officers asked Luzin whether he had been paid “for organizing the street action.” They arrived at the station before 8 p.m. At around midnight, the police took the three to a basement for questioning in separate windowless rooms. Luzin said he asked the police for a lawyer and to notify his parents, but his requests were denied.

Luzin was questioned overnight, held in a cell, and taken to court on February 8, then released around 8 p.m.

RFE/RL reported that the police officers questioned Sevtsova and Lebednitskaya in the presence of their parents and released them but said they would face charges of “participating in an unauthorized protest.” Sevtsova had refused to incriminate herself as the police had wanted her to, the radio report said. It also said that the police told her mother that Sevtsova would be fined but that if her daughter cooperated, “the situation might change.”

RFE/RL reported that the police officers who questioned Lebednitskaya said “they would work with her school, would try to change her thinking, behavior, attitude.” They also told Lebednitskaya that if she had a police record, some universities might not accept her.

Teenage activists have been prominent in the past few years, with many taking part in widespread protests across Russia organized by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of the authorities harassing and intimidating children who participated in the anti-corruption protests and at June 12 protests in 2017, detaining children who participated in the protests after Putin’s inauguration in May 2018, and also those who protested against corruption and government plans to raise the pension age in September 2018. Sevtsova and Lebednitskaya had previously volunteered at Navalny’s Kaliningrad office but no longer did so.

Putin signed the law on involvement of children in unauthorized protests, rallies or demonstrations on December 27. Organizers found guilty of “involving under-age persons,” defined by Russian law as anyone under 18, can face an administrative charge and a fine of between 30,000 (US$468) and 50,000 Russian rubles (US$781), or compulsory public service of between 20 to 100 hours, or a 15-day jail term. A legal entity can be fined 250,000 (US$3,904) to 500,000 Russian rubles (US$7,805).

“Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, though it currently shows little respect for many of the rights they cover,” Denber said. “The Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically protects children’s rights to freedom of expression and of association, and Russia should comply.”