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Russia: Activist Facing Charges Over Peaceful Protest

Authorities Use Abusive Law to Penalize Critics

Yuliya Galyamina holding placard “Down with the Tsar”, July 2020, Moscow  © 2020 Private

Update: On September 29, Moscow prosecutor office indicted Yuliya Galyamina on charges of repeated violation of the legislation on mass gatherings.

(Moscow) – Russian authorities are prosecuting a Moscow municipal assembly member and opposition political activist for allegedly repeatedly breaking public assembly rules, Human Rights Watch said today. The prosecution violates respect for freedom of assembly.

The municipal assembly member, Yuliya Galyamina, is accused of organizing and participating in unauthorized demonstrations, even though they were peaceful. The authorities should immediately drop the criminal charges against her, and Russia’s parliament should repeal the 2014 law mandating criminal sanctions for repeated involvement in unsanctioned protests. If convicted, Galyamina faces a maximum five-year prison sentence and she would additionally be barred from running for public office for five years.

“Prosecuting peaceful protesters, critics, and opposition figures has become the perverse new normal in Russia, in blatant violation of the country’s international legal obligations,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the charges against Galyamina and start repairing its damaged legal framework that permits such abusive prosecutions.”

On July 31, 2020, the police in Moscow raided Galyamina’s summer cottage and detained her as a suspect for interrogation. When she refused to make a statement, they charged her and then raided her apartment. Galyamina is free, but under travel restrictions.

Under Russian law, people who are found guilty of misdemeanor violations of public assembly rules more than twice in a six-month period can be subjected to criminal prosecution. In September 2019, Konstantin Kotov, a participant in election-related protests in Moscow, was sentenced to four years in prison on this charge. His sentence was later reduced to one-and-a-half years.

Russia’s Constitutional Court twice ruled in similar cases that people should not be criminally prosecuted unless they pose a public threat.

The charges against Galyamina cite three instances when she participated in peaceful protests. Her lawyer, Mikhail Biryukov, told Human Rights Watch two incidents were during last summer’s election-related protests in Moscow. The third, more recent incident, was during a July 15 event, also in Moscow, to collect signatures against the controversial results of the voting on constitutional amendments.

Galyamina has been one of the leaders of the “No!” campaign against constitutional amendments that cleared the way for Vladimir Putin to run for president office again in 2024 and 2030.

She learned about the case against her from journalists who asked her for comment after a statement about the charges appeared on the website of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s criminal investigation service. She stated that the case against her is politically motivated and connected to her involvement with the “No!” campaign. She also stated that it aimed to impede her from running for elected positions in the future.

Biryukov said that police searched her apartment at around 2 a.m., violating legal procedures that provide that searches should be carried out between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.. Any exceptions must be justified. The police sought to justify it by saying that since the criminal case had become known to the mass media and wider public they had to act speedily. However, it was the Investigative Committee’s press service that published information that the criminal case had been opened and neither Galyamina nor others knew about it beforehand, Biryukov said.

During the search, the police said that they needed to “seize [at least] something,” so they confiscated phones belonging to Galyamina and her spouse, an old memory stick, a memory card from her camera for underwater photography, and a CD with an MRI of her head.

The police had also searched Galyamina’s apartment on July 9 and seized other electronic devices and information. That search was in relation to the 2003 Yukos case, the oil company formerly owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The investigation listed Galyamina as a witness, even though according to her lawyer she never met Khodorkovsky, but the authorities are baselessly asserting that she and other opposition activists received financing through funds allegedly embezzled by Khodorkovsky.

On the same day, the police raided the homes of the coordinators of the Open Russia organization and its human rights program, as well as the editorial staff of MBKh Media. The Open Russia press secretary stated that the raids were connected to the application for authorization of a July 15 protest. Some of those whose homes were raided, including Galyamina, were involved with the “No!” campaign and were listed as organizers of the protest. The authorities refused to allow the protest, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Russian authorities often arbitrarily refuse to give permission for public protests organized by critics of the government or the political opposition.

Galyamina’s lawyer said that if Kotov’s case is a precedent, the police might fast-track her case and move it to court within a week or two, then swiftly move to a verdict. With acquittal rates below one percent in Russia, the likelihood of a conviction is very strong.

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 the person does not commit an act of violence or similar crime. The court said that in instances in which demonstrators do not engage in violence, it is important for the public authorities to show tolerance toward peaceful gatherings for freedom of assembly to have real meaning.

Russia’s public assembly law disproportionately restricts freedom of assembly and does not comply with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities effectively ban peaceful protest by the opposition and then use the same legislation to penalize peaceful protesters and suppress dissenting voices.

“Russian authorities should drop the case against Yuliya Galyamina and rescind the law permitting such harassment and oppression against peaceful critics,” Aitkhozhina said.

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