The Protection of civil activist: Countering Political Harassment in St. Petersburg

December 2011 saw the realization of ADC Memorial’s new project aimed at defending the rights of civil activist who have been subjected to repression and violence. In recent years, a number of social movements have increasingly come to face such victimization: environmentalists, journalists, antifascists, LGBT organizations, trade unionists, voluntary election observers, defenders of the city and even human rights activists themselves. The end of 2011 was marked by a particularly turbulent violation of the right to personal opinion, freedom of expression, and freedom of self-realization.

In November in St. Petersburg attempts were made to pass laws limiting the abilities of local LGBT organizations. Only through dedicated protest and objection by human rights activists was the adoption of this homophobic law prevented. Furthermore, hundreds were persecuted in December for exercising their right to openly criticise the government, which comitted gross violations during that month’s parliamentary elections. Peaceful protesters were detained for “administrative offenses”, taken to court, fined, and in some cases, imprisoned. During this period, ADC Memorial provided legal help to dozens of activists who suffered unlawful detention. In those cases where an attorney’s help was needed, ADC Memorial brought in lawyers and specialists in international rights.

On the 6th of December in St. Petersburg, human rights activist and ADC Memorial employee Phillip Kostenko was, like many others, detained and tried for participating in the massive protests against corruption in the parliamentary elections. The court penalized Kostenko with the maximum possible sentence: 15 days in jail. This decision was clearly not guided by the “severity of the crime”. Instead, they were guided by the questionable legal bias of documents presented to the court by the Center for Combating Extremism. With the intention of “characterizing Phillip’s personality”, these documents described Kostenko’s various protest activities in detail. In his appeal against the activist’s unlawful arrest, lawyer Sergei Golubok pointed out the inadmissibility of such evidence; the appeal also focused on numerous procedural violations during arrest and prosecution as well as breaches of the European Convention with regard to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Serious violations of international law also became the foundation of Golubok’s complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, which he filed after national courts failed to reconsider the decision unlawful. The attorney also turned to the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of assembly and speech in strengthening the his arguments. The appeal, in part, asserts that Kostenko was pursued by the Russian authories for speaking and acting in favor of the right to free and peaceful assembly. After his sentencing, Phillip went on a hunger strike to demand the release of all those detained and arrested during mass protests. In order to extend the term of Kostenko’s detention, he was later pinned with other trumped-up charges. In October 2011, Phillip visited local police department in order to provide detained comrades with food and was promptly detained. Police falsely accused him of “swearing in public” (an article of “petty hooliganism”). It appears that the police department fell back on such an arcane accusation with the intention of extending Kostenko’s term. In fact, Phillip is still not free; immediately after the signing of his “release” documents, Kostenko was taken to the police department to be pegged in court with new charges. Again, he was given the maximum penalty — 15 days. In fact, Kostenko’s first term of arrest was simply extended. Lawyer Olga Tseytlina appealed this decision, but again the defense’s arguments were not given serious attention. As a result of the lack of effective means of protection in the Russian courts, a new appeal was filed to international bodies — this time to the UN Committee on Human Rights.

To further deprive Kostenko of his liberty, it became necessary to utilize the mechanisms of criminal prosecution. During his second period of arrest, during the festive New Year’s holiday, police intensified their investigation of Phillip’s vandalism charges. This, too, was a clear case of the government presenting peaceful actions of protest as forms of criminal activity. In this particular case, the “vandalized” object was a pre-election billboard belonging to Putin’s “People’s Front” — this, in itself, leaves no doubt about the prosecution’s political motivation. Damage to political advertising cannot be qualified as act of “vandalism”, as such posters are not objects of cultural heritage, methods of transport, or forms of architecture. Furthermore, a second part of the article was selected in Kostenko’s prosecution: “vandalism committed by a group of persons”. As only one person was charged— and even then, only for minor damage to one of the billboard’s pillar— a stretch of the law is apparent here. The second part of Article 214 allows for detention pending trial and a serious prison term as punishment, so such a reclassification of Kostenko’s charges under the second point of the article on vandalism is particularly suspicious, especially because it occurred at precisely the same time that his release was expected. On the 4th of January, 2012, a meeting was held to decide what preventative measures should be enacted against Phillip. The court had to decide whether there was good reason to hold the accused in custody during his investigation. The prosecution’s primary rationale for Kostenko’s preventative arrest was “breach of good conduct”, which they argued was reflected in Phillip’s record of previous violations. However, none of these were directly related to the charges at hand; they constitutued responsibility for participation in “illegal public events” and actions of protest. In Phillip’s defense, bail was posted by members of the “Yabloko” Legislative Committee Aleksandr Kobrinsky and Boris Vishnevsky, State Duma delegate of “A Just Russia” Ilya Ponomarev, coworkers, and local human rights organizations. International human rights organizations also spoke out in support of Kostenko, including the Observatoryfor the Protection ofHuman Rights Defenders(a joint projectof the International Federationfor Human Rights andWorld OrganizationAgainst Torture),the AsianHuman Rights Commission, and the U.S.-located human rights groupHuman Rights First). The support of these organizations, all of which oppose repression against human rights activists, has proven to be key in situations where the authorities have tried to present their repressive actions and legtimate and lawful prosecution.

Thanks to the effective and professional work of lawyers Olga Tseytlina and Igor Ryabchikov, the support of bail guarantors, the dedicated work of Vladimir Kostyushev, and the attention fo the media, human rights activists, and the public, the repressive state mechanism of unlawful deprivation of liberty was restricted. The Vasileostrovsky District Court dismissed the investigator’s petition to preventatively detain Kostenko. As a result of cooperation between all those opposed to the political persecutionof human rights defenders and activists, Phillip Kostenko was released to freedom after 30 days of administrative arrest. This result revealed the potentional that human rights campaigns hold as effective responses to the repressive policies of the state, despite the fact that the persecution of activists continues. The recognition of this political persecution should help to unite civil society in defense of those who are unlawfully punished for exercising their rights, including the rights to protest, to peaceful assembly, to free expression of opinion, and to free speech. The defense of these very rights and the protection of all those persecuted for their realization are obviously crucial for all those who manifest civil, social, and political activity.

Stefaniya Kulaeva and Anna Udyarova

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