Participants in a rally in Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, Saturday, to support the former region's governor Sergei Furgal on Oct. 10, 2020. Police detained several dozen protesters in the first crackdown since such rallies started three months ago. © 2020 AP Photo/Igor Volkov

(Moscow) – Police in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, on October 10, 2020 beat peaceful protesters and arbitrarily detained over 20 people, Human Rights Watch said today. Alexander Prikhodko, born in 1977, who was among those arrested, is under investigation for repeatedly violating public assembly regulations, a criminal offense under Russian law punishable by up to five years in prison.

“Russian authorities should immediately drop the case against Prikhodko,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They should also rescind the law permitting criminal prosecution of peaceful activists.”

The protests in Khabarovsk have been ongoing since the unexpected arrest of the popular regional governor, Sergei Furgal, in mid-July. Furgal is in a Moscow jail pending trial for several murders dating back 15 years. Furgal denies the allegations, and his supporters are convinced his prosecution is politically motivated.

Furgal won an election for his seat in 2018 in a contest against a candidate from the country’s ruling party, United Russia. President Vladimir Putin removed Furgal from his position following his arrest due to “loss of trust.” The city’s residents rallied in support of Furgal, demanding his release and the transfer of the investigation from the capital back to Khabarovsk. They were soon joined by residents in other cities in the region.

Authorities in Russia routinely break up peaceful demonstrations, using excessive force and detaining participants of so called “unsanctioned gatherings.” However, the Khabarovk rallies, which often attracted tens of thousands of participants, took place with little police interference, until October 10.

Prikhodko was taking part in the protest on October 10 at about 12:30 p.m. in Khabarovsk’s Lenin Square when police officers surrounded them. His lawyer, Andrei Bityutsky, whom Prikhodko authorized to speak about the case publicly, told Human Rights Watch that three or four officers threw themselves at his client, despite the fact that he did not engage in any violent actions, and roughly dragged him to a police van. “While forcing him into the van, the police broke his nose, which started bleeding heavily,” the lawyer said.

At the local precinct No. 5, where Prikhodko and eight other detainees were taken, police charged him with participation in an “unsanctioned” public gathering and informed him that because it was his third administrative offense of that type in less than six months they would look into opening a criminal case against him.

Under draconian legislation adopted in 2014, people found by a court to have violated public gathering regulations more than twice in a six-month period, can be subjected to criminal prosecution. Despite the fact that Russia’s Constitutional Court twice ruled that people should not be criminally prosecuted unless they pose a public threat, Russian authorities continue using the charge to silence peaceful protestors.

Konstantin Kotov, a civic activist in Moscow, is serving a prison sentence on this charge. A pro-democracy Moscow politician, Yulia Galyamina, is facing trial over organizing and participating in unauthorized but peaceful demonstrations.

The police kept Prikhodko at the station until 6 p.m., his lawyer said. He was finally allowed to go to a hospital for treatment because his nose continued to bleed.

The next day, the authorities opened a criminal case against Prikhodko over his repeated participation in unsanctioned demonstrations. In addition to the October 10 gathering, they cited two unsanctioned rallies in support of Furgal in August and September respectively, for which he had been fined. Prikhodko had to sign a statement undertaking to immediately respond to the investigators’ summons. A group of five investigators was formed to work on the case and they interrogated Prikhodko for the first time on October 13.

A spokesperson from OVID-Info, a leading Russian independent group that documents detentions and provides legal aid to detainees, said that at least three participants in the peaceful protest in Khabarovsk, who were detained on the same day as Prikhodko, are also facing criminal charges on allegations of low-grade violence against police, which can lead to sentences of up to five years in prison. Other protesters detained were charged with administrative offenses for taking part in an “unsanctioned gathering,” which are likely to result in fines or short-term imprisonment.

“People in Russia should be able to enjoy their right to free peaceful assembly, guaranteed by the country’s constitution and international human rights law, without fear of ending up in court, or worse, behind bars,” Williamson said. “Russia should urgently change its legislation and end the abusive practices that are denying people these rights.”