Boris Vishnevsky: The president has signed a law that effectively abolishes the constitutional right to freedom of assembly
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6 December 2022

by Boris Vishnevsky, deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Свободное пространство]

President Vladimir Putin signed the law ‘On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation’. The bulk of this law aims to make life as difficult as possible for foreign agents and persons ‘under foreign influence’.

However, there is something in this law that does not directly concern foreign agents. Instead, it concerns the constitutional right of citizens to freedom of assembly, which is now being reduced to the point where it hardly even exists. Moreover, this even conflicts with the Constitutional Court’s position.

In short, from now on no one will be allowed to organise a rally anywhere.

The previous wording of Article 8 of Federal Law No. 54 ‘On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets’ prohibited public events in areas immediately adjacent to ‘dangerous production facilities and other facilities, the operation of which requires compliance with special safety regulations’. As well as on/near overpasses, major railway lines and the approaches to them, oil, gas and related pipelines, and high-voltage power lines. In border zones (without the permission of the ‘authorized bodies’). And in areas ‘immediately adjacent to the residences of the President of the Russian Federation; the buildings occupied by courts and emergency operational services; and on the premises and within the buildings of institutions that carry out punishment via imprisonment’.

Now the list of restricted areas has been significantly expanded.

It includes buildings and territories of railway and bus stations, car and truck parks, airports, sea and river ports, and wharves. Buildings and land belonging to educational organisations, medical organisations, social welfare organisations, playgrounds and athletic fields. Buildings and land belonging to religious organisations, buildings and facilities, as well as their land. The only exception is places where public worship and other religious rites and ceremonies are held. And, finally, the buildings belonging to public authorities, as well as the areas directly adjacent to such buildings, to critical infrastructure, including that which ensures the operation of electrical, heat, and water supply networks, sewerage networks, and gas supply networks.

The main thing here, of course, is the ban on holding public rallies in areas adjacent to the buildings where the authorities’ offices are located.

Moreover, it is forbidden to do this in the buildings themselves. It will be impossible to hold a rally or a picket near the State Duma building, or near the Russian government building, or near the building occupied by the St. Petersburg administration or the Legislative Assembly, for example. Or the district/city council or administration. And so on.

But where can citizens express their concerns about the authorities’ decisions if they are dissatisfied with them if not near the sources of their discontent?

The question is far from rhetorical. Three years ago, a request by residents of Komi to hold a rally near the building of a city district administration in Syktyvkar to discuss the poor state of the public transport was refused. The grounds for the refusal was that, allegedly, in accordance with the laws of the republic, it is not permitted to hold a rally closer than 50 metres from the entrance to the administration building. And they filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, stating that the ‘main purpose’ of this ban ‘is to prevent targeted public criticism of regional and local officials by citizens and their associations.’

The November 2019 decision by the Constitutionial Court turned out to be very important.

The Constitutional Court ruled that this ban essentially means ‘the implementation of an insurmountable barrier to exercising the right to freedom of peaceful assembly on the territory of the Komi Republic, near any regional and municipal authorities, as well as any republican state institutions.

And that one cannot ‘automatically’ refuse to hold public rallies in ‘prohibited’ places without assessing whether the particular rally being proposed actually poses any threat to the rights of citizens, public safety and the rule of law.

In addition, the Constitutional Court then considered a regional ban on holding public rallies in places where their holding ‘may eventually disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure, transport or social infrastructure, and communications, and obstruct the movement of pedestrians and (or) vehicles, or citizens’ access to residential premises or objects of transport or social infrastructure’.

Under similar pretexts, such as allegedly ‘obstructing pedestrians or vehicles’, public rallies are banned in many regions (including, of course, St. Petersburg). And  the Constitutional Court recognised this ban as unconstitutional!

The Court pointed out that the holding of public events, as a rule, entails certain inconveniences for those citizens not participating in them (interfering with the work of transport, hindering access to social infrastructure, etc.), but ‘such costs of exercising the freedom of peaceful assembly cannot in themselves serve as a valid reason to refuse to permit the holding of assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches or pickets.

Therefore, ‘the relevant authorities and officials must strive to take all measures within their power to enable the lawful holding of public events at the place and time chosen by the organizers, including by minimizing the consequences they consequences, rather than trying to find any pretexts to justify the prevention of the exercise of the right to organize and hold public events in the format specified in the notification ….’

For three years, the State Duma has been in no rush to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court, but finally they got round to it. However, they did exactly the opposite of what logically they should have done: they imposed a federal ban on holding public protests not only near government buidings , but also near educational facilities. For reference: a region-wide prohibition on rallies near educational institutions exists in Saint Petersburg, and for many years this has been the grounds for the ban on rallies on Sakharov Square, on the edge of which one of the entrances to the Saint Petersburg State University is located. And moreover they prohibit rallies there even on weekends, when there are no classes at the Saint Petersburg State University.

It’s true that in fulfilment of the decision of the Constitutional Court, the right of regions to introduce additional ‘prohibited places’ for rallies and pickets under the pretext that they allegedly hinder the movement of pedestrians and transportation or access to transportation or social infrastructure has now been removed from Federal Law No. 54.

But do not hurry to celebrate: instead, Federal Law No. 54 now contains absolutely ‘flexible’ language!

Now the regions are permitted, ‘in order to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals and citizens, to maintain the rule of law, law and order, and public security,’ to establish prohibited zones for public events, if they are grounded in ‘historical, cultural, or other objective characteristics of the region of the Russian Federation.’

And also to establish ‘other places in which the holding of public events is restricted in terms of the time when they can be held.’

On such ‘grounds,’ referring to ‘historical’ or ‘objective characteristics,’ any region can prohibit public events just about anywhere. In any place.

Translated by Tyler Langendorfer and Simon Cosgrove

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