Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 12:52 GMT

Russia: Authorities must respect freedom of expression during third March of the Millions rally

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 14 September 2012
Cite as Article 19, Russia: Authorities must respect freedom of expression during third March of the Millions rally, 14 September 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/505702522.html [accessed 26 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Ahead of the third March of the Millions rally on 15 September, ARTICLE 19 expresses its concern about the extent to which civil rights and freedoms in Russia have been eroded since Vladimir Putin's re-election to the Presidency.

As widely predicted, Vladimir Putin returned for a third term as President of the Russian Federation in May this year. Less anticipated, however, was the degree and speed at which Russians' rights to freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of assembly would be restricted.

In the space of less than four months, a package of controversial new laws has been adopted. These have a particular impact on the right to take part in protests and demonstrations, like the ones that marred Putin's last six months in his former role as Prime Minister.

Putin's current and third presidential term has so far been marked by a harsh reaction to largely peaceful demonstrations, including:

  • The selective authorisation of protests and demonstrations
  • Impunity for the use of disproportionate force to disperse peaceful demonstrations
  • The mass arrests of activists during and following demonstrations
  • Long periods of pre-trial detention of those alleged to have violated legislation regarding protests
  • Raids on the homes of opposition leaders who are linked to the organisation of large-scale protests
  • Disproportionately harsh sentences, such as the two year sentences given to each the three members of the group Pussy Riot1, for their protest in February 2012.  

Restricting the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression

Within four days of Putin taking up his presidential seat in the Kremlin again, members of Putin's United Russia party in the State Duma initiated a new bill covering protests. This bill proposed restrictions to the right to freedom of assembly and was adopted less than a month later. It came into force on 9 June, just before the second March of the Millions rally on 12 June, Russia's national Independence Day. Criticised by the Kremlin's own Human Rights Council for violating the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, the new law:

  • increased the fines for taking part in unsanctioned protests by up to 120 times
  • placed limits on alternative forms of protests such as flashmobs. Such protests had become a popular alternative after the first March of the Millions rally, which had ended with the arrest of more than 450 people.

The March of the Millions – 'Against Repression!' 

The first march, 6 May: On the eve of Putin's re-inauguration, the first March of the Millions rally in Moscow was organised by Russian opposition leaders. These included Left Front leader, Sergei Udaltsov, and anti-corruption activist and blogger, Aleksey Navalny. Around 20,000 people attended the sanctioned protest which was mostly peacefu. However, when a section led by Udaltsov and Navalny began to march towards the Kremlin, the police clashed violently with protesters, resulting in mass arrests.

Udaltsov and Navalny were released but, after participating in further protests on 8 and 9 May, the pair were again detained, and this time sentenced to 15 days administrative detention for refusing to obey police orders. 

Others detained during the 6-9 May period included a number of journalists reporting on the protests. Although they were subsequently released, their arrests were heavily criticised by Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

The fate of other arrested protesters has been overshadowed by the arrests of these opposition leaders and journalists. There are currently more than a dozen people facing up to ten years in prison charged with causing 'mass disturbance'. Some have been held in prolonged pre-trial detention.

The second march, 12 June: Rallies in both Moscow and St Petersburg March of the Millions, were authorised. However, ahead of the protest police investigation, the homes of several opposition leaders were subjected to armed searches. Those targeted included Navalny, Udaltsov, as well as, other opposition leaders including activist Ilya Yahsin and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. The Federal Investigative Committee then summoned these opposition leaders for questioning on 12 June, restricting their involvement in the rally, which was peaceful and ended without any arrests.

The third march, 15 September: The third March of the Millions is again to be held in both Moscow and St Petersburg, both of which have received official authorisation. It will be held under the slogans 'Snap Elections!' and 'Against Repression'. It will call for:

  • the release of those still arrested in connection to the 6 Mayrally
  • Putin's resignation
  • new snap elections to be held as soon as possible.

Russian authorities signal further 'steps backwards to a more restrictive era'

In July, just one month after the new law on unsanctioned protests came into force, President Putin signed three other controversial laws: 

1.     A law characterising Russian non-governmental organisations which receive funding from abroad as a 'foreign agent', and requiring them to register with the Ministry of Justice and comply with increased regulation.

2.     A law establishing a register of blocked websites that is overseen by a committee who have the authority to block websites without following adequate procedures, resulting in a heightened risk of internet censorship.

3.     A law reintroducing defamation into the Criminal Code, six months after it had been removed. The law also increases the penalties, which include sentences of up to five years in prison.

All three were introduced by members of Putin's United Russia party and were adopted without due process or consideration and with unprecedented speed by the State Duma, during a specially extended session before the summer recess.

ARTICLE 19 believes that these legislative changes constitute a huge step backwards for freedom of expression and democracy in Russia, and one which shows no sign of abating. For example:

  • When the State Duma reopened this week, one of the first items on the agenda was amendments to the NGO 'foreign agent' law, introducing hefty fines for non-compliance
  • Over the summer, members of United Russia also called for amendments to be made to the law on mass media. Like the NGO bill, this would consider media outlets as 'working in the interest of foreign states' if they received funding from abroad.

Reactions to the new legislation

So far, criticism of the legislation appears to have fallen on deaf ears, despite an outcry from both inside and outside Russia: 

  • In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, released a statement describing the new laws as having 'a detrimental effect on human rights in the country' and taking 'steps backwards to a more restrictive era'. A spokesperson for the Russia Foreign Ministry subsequently accused her of being 'politically motivated and inappropriate'.
  • The US State Department expressed 'deep concern' over the bills. The Russian authorities described their comment as 'gross interference'.
  • The Head of the Kremlin's Presidential Council for Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, criticised the legislation as "contradictory to the fundamental principles of Russian law". Fedotov argued that they would lead to excessive and unfounded limitation of the activities of non-commercial organisations and internet service providers, imposing disproportionate sanctions in terms of pursuing individual prosecutions.
  • During his visit to Russia in July, Andreas Gross, the Co-Rapporteur responsible for monitoring Russia's commitment to its obligations as a Council of Europe member, described the defamation legislation as an 'invitation to punish critics you don't like', stating that it failed to meet European standards.
  • On 11 September, Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, criticised the sentence given to the members of Pussy Riot1.  She expressed concern at what she described as a growing "intolerance of any expression of dissenting views."

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Russian authorities to:

  • Comply with Russia's obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as its other international human rights treaties
  • Revoke recent legislation and bring its legal framework in line with international human rights standards on the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of information and peaceful assembly
  • Ensure that freedom of expression, as well as freedom of information and assembly, are respected and not infringed for politically motivated reasons
  • Unconditionally release the three Pussy Riot members and quash all charges against them
  • Ensure that law enforcement bodies, prosecutors and courts fully respect all international human rights standards, including on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

--

1 The trial against three members of the feminist punk collective, Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, was held almost in parallel with the legislative developments and gained significant international attention. On 17 August, they were  found guilty of 'hooliganism motivated by religious hatred' and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Their charges, trial and sentencing were widely criticised as being disproportionate to their action – dancing on the altar of a church in Moscow, while singing a song criticising the relationship between church and state in Russia. (Read more about their case and ARTICLE 19's response [link to: http://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/3418/en/russia:-prison-sentences-for-pussy-riot-violate-freedom-of-expression])

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