9 April 2020
Andrey Kazantsev is a civic and environmental activist from Moscow, Russia
It all started at the beginning of the summer of 2019, when the Moscow City Election Commission [MCEC] refused to register almost all independent opposition candidates in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, giving merely formal pretexts. According to Russian law, an independent candidate must collect 3% of signatures of the voting-age population of their election district, as checked by the MCEC, to register as a candidate in the elections. The MCEC refused to validate signatures in support of independent opposition candidates. As a result, independent candidates were not registered for the elections. Many Moscow residents, whose signatures were considered invalid by MCEC, including some famous individuals, confirmed their signatures publicly. The MCEC ignored these complaints and refused to change its decisions. In addition, it turned out that supposed ‘specialists’ from the MCEC, who had checked the signatures, had neither competence nor training in this area. Furthermore, it was transpired that all candidates who supported the authorities were allowed to stand in the elections, including persons quite unknown to the Moscow public.
In response to that unlawful situation, 17 independent candidates met with their supporters and went to the MCEC building on 14 July. That demonstration was solely peaceful and had one demand only: that, in accordance with the law, independent opposition candidates should be allowed to take part in the election. Nevertheless, the police acted very brutally and by the end of the day had terminated the demonstration. About 40 people were detained, several people were beaten by the police, including teenagers.
This event generated waves of protests in Moscow, not only in support of the candidates but against police violence and the corrupted Russian political system in general. Among other slogans protesters were shouting ‘Putin is a thief’ and ‘Putin go away’. Protesters acted peacefully, not a single vehicle or any other property was damaged, in contrast with the police and other law enforcement agencies, who responded with violence.
The law enforcement agencies involved included not only the police, but also the National Guard, the Interior Ministry Troops, the OMON anti-riot police and officers from the Centre for Combating Extremism. The culminating point of the protests was on 27 July when aproximately 1,400 people were detained. Police were were heavily armoured and in balaclavas, often with police dogs, and actively used batons. As a result, many protesters were injured, including women and teenagers. Many people were arrested and were given penalties by the courts. Several passers-by, who had not been taking part in protests, were detained and fined as protesters.
The police officers committed multiple violations of regulations and laws:
- drew up identical records of arrest for different people, just copying previous ones, with incorrect places, times and reasons for arrest;
- took away personal belongings, including cellphones and medicine;
- refused to allow lawyers to meet detainees in police stations;
- held detainees in police buses for several hours, without allowing detainees to drink or visit a toilet, etc.
Russian courts convicted those detained automatically, based on police records only, without taking into account evidence provided by the defendants. In addition, several dozens of detainees were interrogated by officers from the Investigative Committee and Federal Security Service (FSB), who sometimes posed as human right defenders. From that very day, prosecutors started to open criminal proceedings against protesters and opposition activists. The series of such proceedings has become known as ‘The Moscow Case’.
The arrests continued throughout the whole autumn. Prosecutors discovered more and more suspects: in new protests, on videos from previous ones and on the Internet. Some of the protesters were arrested, based on their posts and comments in social networks, or for videos they had posted about the protests, many days after the protest had ended, often without advance notice from the police, and after night searches of their houses. Authorities used 14 articles of the Russian Criminal Code, including Article 212 ‘Civil Disorder’, Article 318 ‘Use of Force to Members of Law Enforcement Agencies’, Article 282 ‘Incitement of Hatred or Hostility, as well as Violation of Human Dignity’, and Article 280 ‘Public Incitement to Support of Extremism’.
Over this time a number of protesters were sentenced for the following reasons:
- throwing a garbage can at the side of a police officer (Evgeny Kovalenko, 3,5 years’ imprisonment),
- pushing a police officer (Danila Beglets, 2 years’ imprisonment),
- touching the visor of a helmet worn by a police officer (Kirill Zhukov, 3 years’ imprisonment),
- throwing an empty plastic bottle toward a police officer (Aidar Gubaydulin, who has left Russia and is on an international wanted list),
- pulling the body armour of a police officer (Sergei Medenkov, now on an international wanted list).
During the protests not a single National Guard officer was hurt, with the possible exception of one who dislocated his shoulder when he was beating Pavel Ustinov. The first sentence given to Pavel was three and a half years’ imprisonment for the alleged offence. On appeal, Pavel’s sentence was reduced to a one-year suspended sentence. In fact, Pavel had not taken part in the protest – he just waited for his friend near a subway station where protest took place.
The Moscow non-violent activist Konstantin Kotov was imprisoned for four years under Article 212.1, “Repeated violation of the established order of organizing and holding rallies, protests, demonstrations etc.”, the so-called DadinArticle. Konstantin became the second person ever to be sentenced under this article after Ildar Dadin in 2015. The issue is that the Russian Constitution allows peaceful assemblies without any official permission, but the law on public assemblies requires that the authorities give their approval – de facto it is a prohibitive law. The formal reason of Konstantin’s imprisonment was three violations of the Russian law on public assemblies. The investigation was carried out in four days. Konstantin’s lawyer had only three days to study the four volumes of the case materials. Court hearings were held over two days; on the third day Konstantin was convicted and sentenced. Appeals did not help.
Three persons were sentenced for posts on social networks: two of them received sentences: one was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment (Vladislav Sinitsa); the student Yegor Zhukov was given a three-year suspended sentence for four videos about peaceful protest on his YouTube channel. Those videos were described as “incitement to extremist activity” by the prosecutor. The Prosecutor requested that Yegor be given a four-year term in a prison colony, however the punishment was reduced as a result of strong public support.
The military authorities applied pressure to male protesters of conscription age (under 27 years of age) regarding their obligations to serve in the Russian army. Ruslan Shaveddinov was arrested and sent to one of the least accessible military bases in the far north straight from the police station.
The authorities were not above putting pressure on teenagers and children. There were many instances where police officers went to schools and universities to warn students that taking part in any kind of protests might lead to their expulsion, penalties for their parents, and criminal prosecutions. Two families were threatened with deprivation of parental rights because they had taken their children to the protests. The protests had indeed been peaceful, with the exception of the police violence, and that was why parents had not been afraid to take their children along to them. The Investigative Committee initiated criminal cases against those families.
Almost all the unregistered independent candidates were arrested multiple times during the summer and autumn and were given penalties. In addition, the Moscow police, the Moscow subway authorities and some companies connected with the Moscow city authorities filed lawsuits against the candidates for compensation for expenses and damage they claimed were caused by the protests.
As a result of the protests, about 2,000 people were detained, about 250 arrested, 31 investigated, 21 sentenced, 11 imprisoned and two are on an international wanted list. More than 100 people were injured by police officers during the protests; not a single police officer was injured or prosecuted. Not a single investigation was launched into police brutality.
The protests about the Moscow City Duma elections were over by the end of the autumn, but there is no certainty that arrests have yet ended. The failure to punish police brutality, arrests and prosecutions without evidence, the speed of the investigations and trials, verdicts based solely on prosecutors’ positions, the range of government agencies involved and the degree of coordination of their activities against protesters – all these factors indicate another wave of orchestrated repressive actions by the Russian authorities. This wave of repression is directed not only against the political opposition, but also against ordinary Russian people. The measures are intended to prevent those most active from continuing to protest and to arouse fear among others.