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Mariya Starikova stands in front of the FSB building in Moscow with a placard reading “Freedom to Ivan Safronov”, July 7, 2020. © 2020 Kommersant Photo/Aleksandr Kazakov

(Moscow) – Dozens of journalists in Russia face fines or detention for peacefully protesting in solidarity with their colleagues whom authorities are criminally prosecuting for their journalism work, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should immediately drop the charges against the protesters and other journalists and end attacks on freedom of expression.

In most cases, police invoked rules on public assemblies as grounds for arrest. In several cases, police also invoked public health rules, introduced to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. The police falsely claimed that some of the protesters were violating these rules, yet kept most of the detained protesters in overcrowded, poorly ventilated police vehicles where they could not practice social distancing.

“Independent reporters in Russia have been under attack for years, with the recent criminal prosecutions taking the repression to a new level,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People have every reason to peacefully protest repression, and the authorities have an obligation to allow them to do so safely. Instead they’ve detained peaceful protesters under the abusive and restrictive rules on public assembly and under the guise of protecting public health, while exposing them to risk of infection in custody.”

On July 3, 2020, 17 people were detained outside of the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Moscow as they protested the prosecution of Svetlana Prokopyeva, for her journalism work. The majority of those detained were journalists. The following day two journalists were detained in Pskov, where Prokopyeva was on trial.

On July 7, 28 more journalists and activists were detained outside the FSB building in Moscow, protesting against the treason charges brought against Ivan Safronov, an adviser at Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, and former reporter for Kommersant. In all three incidents, the protesters distanced themselves from each other, carrying out what is known in Russia as “single-person pickets.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to several of the detained protesters and their lawyers.

Igor Yasin, co-chair of trade union of journalist and media workers, said that journalists were shocked when they learned on July 3 that the prosecution was seeking a six-year prison term and four-year ban from journalism for Prokopyeva. Olga Churakova, a veteran reporter who has worked for several prominent independent Russian outlets, said she wanted to protest in support of Safronov on July 7 because journalism has become “nearly impossible in Russia and journalists are being detained effectively every other day.”

For some of the protesters, like Mariya Starikova, this week’s protests were their first experience of civic activism. Starikova said she was compelled to protest not only to support her former colleague at Kommersant, Safronov, but also in solidarity with fellow journalists who were detained for protesting.

In all three incidents, protests were entirely peaceful, but were met with overwhelming police presence. Protesters brought placards with slogans including “Journalism is not a crime” and “No to prison terms for words,” “Free Svetlana Prokopyeva,” and “Free Ivan Safronov.” In Moscow, police detained most protesters almost immediately after they raised their placards, and in some cases, even before they had a chance to do so. Police detained at least two people while they were giving interviews about the protests. In Pskov, police warned protesters before detaining them.

Mariya Chernykh in a police bus with a placard reading “Journalism is not a crime, neither is a picket”, July 7, 2020, Moscow. © 2020 Private

Under Russian law, a protester is not required to notify authorities in advance for a solitary picket. Protesters said that in Moscow they made sure that at any given time only one person stood with a placard, and in Pskov the two protesters complied with the 50-meter distance requirement to qualify as a solitary protest.

The police claimed in their detention reports that the solitary protests were united by the same purpose and theme and similar placards, and therefore classified them as one unified public assembly.

Police put most detained protesters in specialized detention buses. On July 3, all 17 detainees were placed in one police bus. The bus, on which some spent hours, was overcrowded and poorly ventilated and allowed no possibility for social distancing, potentially exposing the occupants to the risk of contracting Covid-19. Meanwhile, two empty police buses were parked next to it, and a Human Rights Watch observer saw two more empty buses about a block away.

Detainees’ experiences varied after they were transferred to police stations. On July 3, lawyers representing protesters who were taken to one of two police stations were not granted access to their clients for the first hour, and on the station chief’s instruction, were kept out of the police station. They were granted access to their clients only after members of the Public Monitoring Commission, an independent expert body authorized by the government to monitor detention facilities, arrived to intervene.

The protesters were held inside police vehicles for varying periods. By the time all of them were processed, the three-hour detention period set out in Russian law for this category of offense had expired.

Likewise, on July 7, some detainees in Moscow were forced to stay in a hot, cramped, and poorly ventilated police bus for over three hours in one police station courtyard. Social distancing was impossible. One of the protesters said she was detained at around 10 p.m. and was released shortly before 2 a.m. At a different police station in Moscow, and in Pskov, police swiftly processed at least some of the detainees, allowed them to maintain social distancing, and released them within the legal time limits.

All protesters were released on condition they report to police on an assigned date to process the administrative charges against them. Most detainees in Moscow face charges of violating public assembly regulations, and if charged face a maximum 20,000-ruble (approximately US$280) fine or up to 40 hours of community service.

At least two of those detained in Moscow, including journalist and political activist, Ilya Azar, face a maximum 300,000-ruble (US$4,200) fine or up to 200 hours of community service, or 30 days in detention for a repeated public assembly violation, having also been detained for this offense earlier this year.

At least one protester in Moscow and both in Pskov were detained for “failure to comply with the rules of behavior during an emergency” and face up to a maximum 30,000-ruble (US$420) fine. This offense was introduced in April to enforce social distancing measures. Police in Pskov told one of the protestors that he could face additional charges as an organizer of the protest due to his post on social media.

Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Russian constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Russia has ratified both treaties. To be lawful, any limitations on peaceful assemblies and free speech must be provided for in law, be nondiscriminatory, and be both necessary and proportionate.

Olga Churakova stands in front of the FSB building in Moscow with a placard reading “Journalism is not a crime”, July 7, 2020. © 2020 Private

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner on Human Rights recently called on the Russian authorities to overhaul legislation and practice governing freedoms of assembly and expression, including in the context of the pandemic, to align them with European human rights standards, and reiterated that the health restrictions introduced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic must not be used to unduly limit human rights and freedoms.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that “[S]tates responses to Covid-19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association,” and that while “[r]estrictions based on public health concerns are justified,… “[i]t is imperative the crisis not be used as a pretext to suppress rights in general or the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly … in particular.”

The UN Human Rights Committee is finalizing its draft General Comment no.37, which states that any restrictions to freedom of assembly must be narrowly drawn and that “[T]here are, in effect, limitations on the limitations that may be imposed.” Earlier, the World Health Organization and UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture said that governments should minimize the number of people in custody during the pandemic.

Human Rights Watch said that Russia’s authorities should not use Covid-19 as a pretext to disproportionately restrict freedom of assembly and should stop treating peaceful criticism as an offense.

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