(Moscow) – Russian authorities should withdraw all charges and immediately free a civic activist imprisoned for involvement in peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Russia’s parliament should repeal the 2014 law mandating criminal sanctions for repeated involvement in unsanctioned protests.
The activist, Kostantin Kotov, a 34-year-old software engineer, has been behind bars for over 6 months in connection with peaceful political protests in Moscow in the summer of 2019 over the exclusion of opposition candidates from the city council elections. An appeals court hearing on Kotov’s case is scheduled for March 2, 2020.
“Imprisoning Konstantin Kotov for nothing more than exercising his right to peaceful assembly is simply abominable,” said Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are using a blatantly abusive law to trample on Kotov’s basic rights, and he should be unconditionally released.”
Kotov, unlike others prosecuted as part of the 2019 “Moscow case,” was not charged with specific actions allegedly carried out at the protests but solely with “repeated violations of regulations on public gatherings” under art. 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code.
Russian authorities often arbitrarily refuse to give the required permission for public protests organized by critics of the government or the political opposition and punish protesters participating in unsanctioned peaceful gatherings and single-person pickets.
The charges against Kotov stemmed from 5 incidents during a 6-month period. He took part in 3 unauthorized but peaceful protests on rights and political issues, in a Facebook post in July called for people to join a protest against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow legislature election, and then took part in an election-related protest in August.
Kotov was arrested on August 12. The case was investigated and moved to trial in less than a week, virtually unprecedented for criminal investigations and trials in Russia.
On September 5, the Tverskoi District Court in Moscow sentenced Kotov to four years in prison. On October 14, the Moscow City Court upheld the sentence on appeal.
Kotov is currently serving his sentence in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov, in Vladimir region. In January, Kotov’s lead lawyer, Maria Eismont, alleged that penitentiary officials were harassing him. In particular, they would not issue him a spoon for several days and warned him against borrowing gloves during cold weather from another prisoner who had an extra pair, while Kotov had none.
Kotov’s legal team filed an application with Russia’s Constitutional Court arguing that his conviction was contrary to the court’s 2017 ruling that art. 212.1 of the Criminal Code should not be applied in cases in which protesters posed no threat to society. The Constitutional Court issued that ruling in the case of Ildar Dadin, the only person before Kotov who had been sentenced to prison for serial involvement in unsanctioned protests. Russia’s Supreme Court then quashed Dadin’s criminal sentence, recognized his “right to rehabilitation,” and ordered his release from the penal colony where he was serving a two-and-a-half year sentence.
On January 25, following a public campaign on Kotov’s behalf, President Vladimir Putin directed the Prosecutor General’s Office to verify the validity of the sentence. Two days later, the Constitutional Court issued a finding on Kotov’s case, citing its ruling in the Dadin case and stating that a retrial was necessary because the first and second instance courts did not consider the issue “of whether [his actions] resulted in real harm or risk of harm.”
Kotov’s lawyers petitioned the chair of Russia’s Supreme Court to arrange for a prompt review of Kotov’s case in light of the Constitutional Court’s opinion. On January 31, the Supreme Court refused the request, stating that the review of the case should go through “the cassation court of general jurisdiction,” an appeals court that reviews relevant law, including alleged violations of due process. On February 2, the Prosecutor General’s Office petitioned the court of cassation to reduce Kotov’s sentence to one year in prison. If that court endorses the petition after hearing the case on March 2, Kotov will be released in the near future, taking into account the time he served in pretrial custody.
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Russian Constitution, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), treaties to which Russia is a party. 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 been prohibited, so long as this person does not commit an act of violence or similar crime.
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.
In addition to Kotov and Dadin, two environmental activists have faced charges for their repeated participation in peaceful assemblies. Both protested against waste dumps that could be public health risks in their regions. In September, Andrey Borovikov, in Arkhangelsk, was sentenced to 400 hours of community service. The case against Vyacheslav Yegorov, in Kolomna, is expected to move to trial, but with no clear timeline. He spent six months under house arrest in 2019.
“Instead of clearing Kotov of all charges the authorities are effectively making arrangements for releasing him with a criminal record,” Lokshina said. “The authorities should quash the case against Kotov and let him enjoy his right to rehabilitation.”