Peaceful Protests on Russia Day: Thousands Detained, Hundreds Arrested

On June 12, in cities across the Russian Federation, people gathered to peacefully protest corruption. Many carried Russian flags; some brought anti-corruption signs. Police assembled at the protest sites in advance; almost immediately they began to grab protesters and drag them to police vans and busses. According to OVD-Info, a group set up to monitor police repression, 866 protesters were detained in Moscow and 32 spent the night at police stations. Some of the detainees were beaten, and the prominent Moscow activist Yuliya Galyamina spent a week in the hospital with serious injuries. Opposition politicians who took part (or at least planned to take part) in the Moscow protests faced administrative charges, and Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, and Vyacheslav Maltsev were placed under administrative arrest.

In St. Petersburg, where people had gathered for the holiday on the Field of Mars (sometimes referred to as Petersburg’s Hyde Park and a place where people are allowed to gather for public events without special permission), the reaction was even harsher. The police instructed those gathered to board special busses to be taken away from the city’s center to a park on the outskirts. When people refused to board the busses voluntarily, they were forced into them, but instead of a park, they were taken to police stations. OVD-Info reported that at least 658 people were detained, and 247 were held for one or even two days. According to information posted on the site of St. Petersburg’s municipal court, between June 13 and June 15, 1,057 pieces of evidence were registered in regard to 529 people. Seventeen courts “issued orders” in regard to 1,043 pieces of evidence regarding 522 people. At least 100 people were given various sentences under administrative law (from 2 to 15 days), and hundreds were fined. OVD-Info calculated that, collectively, St. Petersburg protesters were jailed for 780 days and fined 2.874 million rubles.

Those detained and convicted include quite a few well known people (some elderly), such as Revolt Pimenov, a social activist and mathematician; large numbers of minors were also detained, and hundreds of children spent many hours in police custody.

Some peaceful protesters are facing criminal charges for “use of force against members of law enforcement” under Article 318 of the RF Criminal Code. This is the article under which the Bolotnaya Square protesters were charged in 2012 (they have since been recognized as political prisoners), as well as participants in the March 26, 2017 protests. Among those charged in connection with the June 12 protests are two minors (both have refused to testify). On June 20 it became known that a third suspect was under house arrest, and a member of Russia’s National Guard stated that this person had stabbed a member of the police in the back; this was later refuted by the Investigative Committee, and now this “stab” has turned into a “punch” (the demonstrator has nevertheless been jailed).

No cases have been initiated against members of the police who beat demonstrators, detained them for days under inhumane conditions, or refused to provide medical care, food, or water to the ill–this, despite the fact that large-scale violations of the rights of detainees in St. Petersburg have been cited by St. Petersburg’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Alexander Shishlov, by Boris Vishnevsky, a member of St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly (Vishnevsky personally visited a number of police stations), and by members of the Public Monitoring Commission, a prison watchdog group.

RBC Information Systems reports that, at St. Petersburg’s Police Station No. 33, pepper gas was sprayed into one cell and reached others through the ventilation system, choking detainees and causing them to require medical attention, especially asthmatics. Medical assistance was provided only after a long wait, and detainees were transferred to a cold and dirty basement. Two were later hospitalized.

Some of those under administrative arrest were also hospitalized, including the well-known human rights activist Dinar Idrisov. After the demonstrators were dispersed, he went to the courthouse to provide legal representation to those detained on June 12, but he was not allowed in. After he tried to force his way in, Idrisov himself was charged with “petty hooliganism” and jailed for 14 days, where he went on a hunger strike.

The arrests in St. Petersburg in 2017 represent the most sweeping detention and administrative arrest of peaceful demonstrators in recent years. A special detention center grew overcrowded, and many are serving sentences in Leningrad Oblast (a separate administrative unit from St. Petersburg).

The detention of demonstrators, the use of force by the police, keeping detainees under inadmissible conditions for long periods (days!) as they await their court appearances, torture using pepper gas and cold, and, finally, unfair sentencing almost always without legal representation (imprisonment and high fines just for expressing a civic position) are gross violations of the rights of Russian citizens. The legitimacy of criminal charges alleging “force” used against the police (where a “stabbing” turns out to actually be a “punch”) is extremely dubious.

What is not in doubt is that violence was used against peaceful demonstrators, that their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and all norms of international law were violated, and that the government’s preferred method for dealing with those wishing to protest corruption is the police.

Photo by David Frenkel