24 January 2022
by Maria Starikova
Kommersant has learned that a coalition of 11 Russian NGOs has addressed the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CMCE) with a report on the situation concerning freedom of assembly in the Russian Federation. The motivation for the address is the March meeting of the CMCE, at which the committee must, for the fourth time, evaluate the implementation by Russia of the recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on changing the legislation on public protests. Earlier, the Russian authorities sent the Committee of Ministers a report on the improvement of the situation. The human rights activists believe the Russian authorities are unlikely to receive positive feedback, and have provided the CMCE with fresh data on the number of detainees and arrests at public events in 2021.
The appeal was signed by 11 Russian NGOs and sent to the CMCE on January 18. The signatories are the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Committee against Torture, the Indigenous Russia information centre, the Batani International Indigenous Foundation for Development and Solidarity, the Justice for Journalists Foundation (founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Leonid Nevzlin), For Human Rights (which has been refounded as an association without a legal entity), as well as five NGOs included in the register of foreign agents – OVD-Info, Public Verdict, the Tak-tak-tak Foundation, the Sphere charitable foundation, and the Memorial Human Rights Centre ( in December 2021, the Moscow City Court ruled to liquidate Memorial Human Rights Centre after a complaint from the prosecutor’s office about ‘repeated violations’ of the law on foreign agents).
“We highlight an increase in prosecutions under articles of the Code of Administrative Offences: from 13,700 in 2020 to about 16,000 in 2021,” Aleksandra Chilikova, a lawyer for OVD-Info, told Kommersant. “We are talking about 170 criminal cases against participants in rallies in support of Aleksei Navalny (protests that took place without official approval in winter and spring of 2021, after the return of the politician to Russia, his arrest and the exchange of a suspended sentence for a real one – Kommersant) . We’re talking about especially harsh detentions along with the use of special equipment – stun guns – during rallies in St Petersburg.”
The address also refers to the tendency to detain protesters after the event itself, using facial recognition software (for more details, see Kommersant, 17 January 2021). In addition, the report mentions the blocking of the website of OVD-Info, which has been publishing information about the detention of protesters and the legal remedies available to them for more than ten years. In December 2021, the Moscow Region’s Lukhovitsky district court restricted access to the website, stating that it contains information ‘aimed at justifying the activities of extremist and terrorist organisations, and justifying the actions of members of such organisations.’ The creators of the project categorically disagree with this accusation.
You will recall that in 2017, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling on the application concerning right of assembly Lamashkin et al v. the Russian Federation, joining the case of the activist Igor Lamashkin to those of 22 others. The cases all pertained to the authorities’ refusal to grant permission for rallies held in 2009-2013. At that time, the ECtHR ordered Russia to address ‘systemic violations’ in the legislation on public gatherings: to simplify the process of approving demonstrations, increase the number of sites for rallies, clearly state the reasons for refusing permission, and so on. A ‘deadline’ of March 2022 was set. If by then the CMCE did not see significant progress, it would draft an ‘interim resolution’ noting problems with regard to the implementation of ECtHR rulings.
Since then, the Russian Government has provided regular reports to the CMCE on the work it has been doing to improve the right to freedom of assembly. For instance, a year ago, the Russian Government told the CMCE about outreach it was conducting with ministry of the interior [police – ed.] officials around observing the rights of protestors. The Russian authorities also boasted of a system of ‘Hyde Parks’ where rallies could be held, and of other ways in which they could make ‘alternative sites’ available for public demonstrations. In response, human rights NGOs submitted a ‘rebuttal’ to the CMCE. For them, such ‘outreach’ amounted to no more than ‘translating ECtHR rulings on the Lamashkin case and disseminating them to police officers.’ And in reality, all the Hyde Park arrangement came down to was allocating sites on the outskirts of towns and cities, and refusing to approve demonstrations in more populated places.
Human rights defenders also kept the CMCE regularly informed that the situation was worsening. So actually, suggests Aleksandra Chilikova, the chances that the Russian Government’s efforts will be recognised as ‘sufficient’ are already fairly low. ‘But we can’t know that for sure, which is why we sent the document, to make it easier for the CMCE to assess the situation,’ she says.
The authors of the document ask that the Russian authorities be reminded of their responsibilities to the ECtHR and that the mass arrests of protestors be condemned. In addition, that the CMCE propose to the Russian authorities that a working group comprised of experts and representatives of civil society be formed to discuss the reforms needed to implement the ruling on the Lamashkin case. Similar demands were put forward last year; when Kommersant asked the Ministry of Justice about this the response was given that the government was ‘already working’ on the issues raised in the recommendations.
Furthermore, the human rights defenders are asking the Committee of Ministers to call on the Russian Government to guarantee the right to take part in single pickets without giving notice (Russia had previously noted in its own reporting that such an option might be provided for by law). In addition, they consider it necessary to reduce the size of administrative fines related to public protests (these are currently 10,000-20,000 roubles for a first offence, while the punishment for repeat offences ranges from 50,000-300,000 roubles and up to 30 days’ detention). The list of recommendations includes ‘lifting bans on single pickets imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.’ The human rights defenders point out that the government selectively applies such a ban to picketers depending on their political stance.