The Russian government has sent recommendations to the UN on how member states should interpret the right of citizens to freedom of assembly. In Moscow, “preventive detentions and searches” are considered acceptable before rallies, and “plain-clothes officers” are also used at protests. Furthermore, responsibility for the actions of participants falls on the organisers of the event. The “threat of violence” is seen as sufficient grounds for banning it. In addition, the Russian authorities object to the UN’s declared duty to protect protesters “from attacks caused by homophobia, sexism or gender discrimination” — in Moscow, this is considered “an attempt to create a kind of privileged protection regime for certain people.”
In conversation with The Insider, Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, called the proposals of the Russian authorities ridiculous and spoke about measures that can limit the arbitrariness of the authorities.
According to the Constitution, there is no reason to apply restrictions to events such as these. Article 31 of the Constitution states that citizens have the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It provides a general thesis, and the law already regulates this in some way. The statement that “the mere threat of violence is already grounds for imposing restrictive measures” contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation. But the problem is not even that the laws do not regulate assemblies very well, but that the authorities regularly violate the laws.This is not just the case in the periphery, but in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They can come up with all sorts of false information, obtained through secret means. Failure to recognise the right to participate in rallies can be considered a sign of repression.
Another big problem is that, unlike the legislation of almost every other country, Russia does not have the concept of spontaneous mass action, where people take to the streets in case of emergency events. They come out spontaneously, and no one detains them. We do have what are called “citizens’ meetings”, when people take to the streets without any signs of a picket or rally, and they are detained.
As for the Russian government’s proposal to include a clause placing responsibility for participants on the organisers, I, as an organiser of very large mass actions, can say that this is definitely impossible. The fact is that determined opponents can easily commit any provocation, which occasionally happens sometimes. Terrorists can attack a mass event, for example, by crashing a car into the crowd, which has happened many times before. It is absurd to believe that the organisers of a mass action can prevent this or should be held responsible for it. This is the work of the security services, who should be able to prevent this from happening. Now the Russian state is signing off on the intentional inefficiency of its own special services.
The presence of plain clothes officers at mass events seems both useful and necessary, provided they are just observing. They are observing, because the grounds for detaining a rally participant include evidence of violence, either against citizens or the state. There is a special law that is jokingly referred to as “mass disorder” (Article 212 of the Criminal Code). It clearly states what mass riots are: the use of weapons, arson, disorganisation of government authority, and violence against citizens. But this does not prevent the authorities from referring to other events as mass riots, such as those in Moscow not long ago.
We are working on making changes to the legislation of the Russian Federation so that there are fewer restrictions on holding mass actions. One proposal is to ensure meetings take place between government representatives and applicants in the event of an event’s refusal, so that the region’s human rights commissioner can participate as a mediator. This would limit state arbitrariness. Taking this into account, Russia’s recommendations to the UN are a brazen and serious attempt to challenge the obvious, and the UN should be involved in discussing this.
Translated by James Lofthouse