Police officers detain a protestor, during a peaceful protest in the center of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.

© 2019 AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
(Berlin) – The detention of at least 1,001 people at a Moscow protest on August 3, 2019 and use of excessive force against peaceful protesters represent further evidence of Russian authorities’ preference for repression over rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

The unsanctioned protest was the latest in a series of peaceful demonstrations in Russia’s capital over the exclusion of opposition candidates from upcoming city assembly elections. More than 80 children and 14 journalists were among those detained.

“The Russian government claims the protesters are disrupting city life, but based on what we saw on August 3 and on July 27, it’s not the activists but rather the police who are disrupting normal life,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Police have turned central Moscow into a special operation zone, attacking and beating people for peacefully walking the streets.”

Police block a square during a peaceful protest in the center of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.

© 2019 AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The Council of Europe’s (CoE) human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed concern over massive “apprehensions of peaceful protesters” and numerous reports “indicative of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.” She urged Russian authorities to “ensure the full respect of the fundamental human right of freedom of peaceful assembly, which is central to the effective working of the democratic system.”

The August 3 protest took form of a walk along the Boulevard Ring, a pedestrian walkway in the city center. According to the Moscow police, about 1,500 people took part. An accurate number is hard to establish, though, since protesters gathered at various points and moved around the center. Some observers estimated higher numbers.

On August 2, municipal authorities sent out advisories to shops and restaurants in the area to shut down because of “anticipated unsanctioned mass gatherings.” On August 3, telephone and internet connectivity in central Moscow was low and some local cafes had no Wi-Fi.

Human Rights Watch researchers observed the protest for several hours, including at Trubnaya Square, and Tsvetnoy, Rozhdestvensky, Sretensky, and Chistoprudny boulevards, and witnessed dozens of abusive detentions. Law enforcement officers tackled people, who were not resisting, to the ground, twisted their arms in apparently painful positions, and dragged or carried them into police vehicles. From early afternoon to late evening, the city center was effectively taken over by thousands of police and Russia’s National Guard personnel, who completely blocked pedestrians from entering some areas and snatched people out of the crowd, seemingly at random.

Police used batons on protesters who posed no threat, and at least 18 people were hospitalized with injuries including abrasions, fractures, and in at least one case, head trauma. Numerous videos of police and National Guard personnel beating people with batons, including those lying on the ground, have been published online. The authorities opened a criminal case against one protester who allegedly resisted detention and reportedly dislocated a riot policeman’s shoulder.

Police detained many people in the area who were not protesters. Among them was Igor Kalyapin, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s human rights council, who was observing the protest. Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch that he specifically wanted to see what would happen to the average person who did not manifest any solidarity with the protesters, so he did not wear an observer’s badge and did not mention his human rights council membership to law enforcement officers.

“I was standing in a crowd of people at Pushkin Square when three Russian [national] guard officers approached me from the back and started dragging me towards a paddy wagon,” he said. “I’m not sure what I did to attract their attention but then, I saw quite a few people detained at Pushkinskaya, and there seemed no logic behind those detentions – they appeared random. They dragged me with the use of force, though I behaved calmly and even tried smiling at them, and threw me into the paddy wagon, which already held around 15 other detainees.”

Detention of a peaceful protestor at Trubnaya Square in Central Moscow. 

© 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch
Several hours later, Kalyapin was released from the Maryino police station, after the head of the presidential human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, apparently intervened.

Hundreds of detainees spent hours in police buses at 51 police stations across Moscow. OVD-Info, a leading independent organization that documents detentions and provides legal aid to detainees, said that lawyers had trouble meeting with clients at the police stations.

Police seized cell phones from many detainees and forced them to be fingerprinted. A human rights lawyer said on social media that she received a phone call from a person who said that when detainees at one police station refused to be fingerprinted, police threatened to cut off their fingers.

Police charged most detainees with violating regulations on mass gatherings and refusing to comply with police orders, then released them that day. For first-time offenders, the former charge is punishable by fines; the latter by up to 15 days in detention. Repeat offenders can face 30 days’ detention and even criminal prosecution for “repeated breaches of public assembly rules,” under a draconian criminal law introduced in 2014.

On July 30, the authorities opened an investigation into alleged “mass rioting,” a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, over the July 27 peaceful protest in Moscow, during which police detained a record 1,373 people. By August 5, nine protesters had been arrested as suspects.

Authorities also interrogated some people who plan to run in the upcoming elections, as well as some of their active supporters, and searched their homes. The actions were in connection with a criminal case opened on July 24 into alleged “meddling in the implementation of citizens’ election rights and the work of election commissions.”

On August 3, Russia’s chief investigative agency also opened a criminal case on “carrying out financial operations with the use of money obtained by criminal means,” targeting the Anti-Corruption Fund, an organization led by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician. The investigation alleges that foundation representatives were involved in laundering one billion rubles (approx. US$15 million), punishable by up to seven years in prison. Navalny is currently serving 30 days in jail on charges of calling for unsanctioned rallies in support of the unregistered candidates.

“The Russian government is escalating repression in an apparent attempt to silence its critics,” Williamson said. “Instead of ensuring free and fair elections, the authorities are cracking down on people who rightfully demand them.”