Protests in Russia over the offensive against Ukraine have already totaled nearly 15,000 arrests since Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on February 24. An old woman who survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II, activists who painted the slogan “No to war”, a couple of families who left flowers in front of the Ukrainian Embassy and a protester who showed a blank cardboard, with nothing written on it In it, several of the detainees put a face to thousands of anonymous people who have also expressed their rejection of the invasion. Some have already been sanctioned with the new Kremlin law, which even contemplates several years in prison “for spreading disinformation” and for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” The arrests show a growing discomfort in Russian society over the aggression against Ukraine, although it is difficult to quantify due to the obstacles to the protests and the control of the media.
“I would like to ask you a question: will they arrest me if I show this poster?” A woman told her interlocutor in front of the Kremlin in a video that went viral on Telegram this weekend. A single second later, the moment in which she took out a piece of paper where she had literally written “two words” (which are also the ones needed in Russian to say “no to war”), she was arrested by five riot police while the man of the camera remained with the word in the mouth.
Due to the scarce information provided by the authorities, the number of arrests that are handled at the moment are those collected by the journalistic portal OVD-Infoan independent group that has been covering anti-government demonstrations for years and is quoted these days by important Russian media as Kommersant. However, his job is getting harder and harder. The portal was declared a “foreign agent” in September 2021, with the problems that this implies in receiving donations and speaking with witnesses due to the fear of being affected; and at the end of last year, its website was blocked by the Russian government.
The telecommunications supervisor, Roskomnadzor, decided to prevent access to the portal because, in his opinion, “it justifies terrorism and extremism”, while its accounts on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were blocked by the Kremlin “for spreading disinformation” about what the government calls a “special military operation for the protection of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics”.
The images of the detainees are repeated over and over again on social networks when they manage to keep their mobile phones. The police take them away from the demonstrations to their vans and, later, they are taken to the police station, where they spend a few hours or, in some cases, the whole night. In the administrative protocols opened against them, there are usually charges such as participation in an unauthorized demonstration, article 20.2 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offenses, which provides for fines of hundreds of euros or up to two weeks of deprivation of liberty.
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However, some of the last arrested are also being tried under the reform of March 3, 2022, which includes article 20.3. This contemplates not only fines, but also sentences of 3 to 15 years in prison, for which the Kremlin considers misinforming about the conflict and discrediting the Russian army. According to the human rights group Ágora, between March 6 and 14, proceedings were opened against at least 166 protesters under this new law, although so far only sanctions of a few hundred euros had been applied.
A key trial to measure the harshness of the authorities is that of the journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who burst into live television with a poster against the war. The editor of Pervyi Kanal was tried and fined this Tuesday by article 20.2 for publishing a video in which she called for protest before her entrance on the set, but she could also be affected by the latest legal reform. Hours earlier, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, stated that protesting live on television against the war “has a special dimension.”
Penalties differ from court to court. In the area where European and Asian Russia meet, a court in the Republic of Bashkortostan (in the west) sentenced a woman to a fine of 30,000 rubles (about 250 euros) who went out dressed in traditional Ukrainian dress. , surrounded by barbed wire and with a masterpiece of Russian literature, War and peacein the hands, according to the local newspaper Idel Realii. In his case, the justice applied the new law that condemns “the discrediting of the Russian armed forces.”
In that same region, the reform that toughens the penalties for a politician from the Russian Libertarian Party, Oleg Mamedov, for distributing anti-war pamphlets was also applied. According Kommersant, was arrested on March 10 and spent the night before his trial in jail. He was later fined 45,000 rubles, plus another 10,000 for participating in an unauthorized demonstration.
In the city of Ivanovo (west of the country), the former head of the local office of the opposition Alexei Navalni was fined 75,000 rubles for holding a personal protest against the war. As reported OVD-InfoNikolai Diachkov was sentenced for repeatedly violating the rules for holding a rally on March 1. However, another activist was given 10 days of arrest, later reduced to eight, for an individual protest in Kazan. The local court ruled that he repeatedly breached protest laws and ordered his detention, followed by a parallel trial for discrediting the Russian armed forces with an additional fine of 30,000 rubles.
The punishment is greater if the detainee is accused of promoting the protests. Near Lake Baikal, in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, citizen Dmitri Bairov was sentenced to 15 days in jail for broadcasting the demonstrations on the first day of the war from his car. The articles on the organization of unauthorized actions (20.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses) and resistance to authority (19.3) were applied to him. According to a close friend of OVD-InfoBairov covered the events for the newspaper Buryat communists and had presented his accreditation to the police officers.
Many other cases are pending trial. In the northern city of Arkhangelsk, the authorities opened a protocol against pensioner Alexander Ryakov for shouting at a protest “Slava Ukraine!” (Glory to Ukraine!), a slogan banned by the Russian authorities because they attribute its use exclusively to Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.
Legal siege of the right to protest
Organizing demonstrations in Russia is difficult. They need prior authorization from the authorities, which before the pandemic led to them receiving approval late or being limited to inconvenient areas of cities, and which with the coronavirus have been directly vetoed due to health restrictions.
The alternative is individual protest, the only way to demonstrate that does not require prior permission, under a 2004 law on meetings, rallies, demonstrations and rallies. However, the legal uncertainty around these acts and the limitations introduced with several amendments in recent years have led to the detention of many people.
As these individual protests are regulated by the law of public assemblies, the restrictions due to the coronavirus also automatically apply to these actions. Thus, Human Rights Watch has denounced hundreds of arrests since 2020 because the mayors of Moscow and Saint Petersburg applied the veto to mass gatherings due to covid-19 to these situations.
In addition, several legal reforms of the last five years have prohibited demonstrations or personal acts of rejection near the so-called “risk areas”, such as courts of justice, prison buildings, police stations and presidential residences. Some regions also prohibit them near parks and public transport stops.
Likewise, foreigners or Russians with prior administrative sanctions cannot participate in these actions; and since 2020, institutions or persons declared foreign agents have been prohibited from calling demonstrations, which is the case of many NGOs and opposition activists. “There is a plethora of legal restrictions on when, where, how, for what purpose, and who can exercise the right to go outside,” denounces Human Rights Watch.
In addition, the legislation does not clarify whether solo protesters act as protagonists or organizers of public events, leaving them in a vulnerable position: they could be arrested on charges of inciting an unauthorized protest. The minimum distance between an individual protesting and another should not be less than 50 meters in cities like Moscow, so the authorities may consider them part of group demonstrations if there are onlookers or journalists nearby.
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