19 April, 2022
by Sam Biden, Global Leadership Fellow
In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in anti-war protests. These protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful in nature, therefore they are protected not just under international law but also by Articles 30/31 of the Russian Constitution.
These protests have not sparked a reasonable response from the Russian government, but a suppressive and malicious one. Current estimates show over 5,500 protestors have been arrested in 77 different cities in connection with anti-war protests. These numbers are partly possible because of the establishment of new interdepartmental and operational groups to work under the Russian Investigative Committee. These groups are tasked with a variety of duties but most notably they are used to suppress and respond to incidents of an ‘extremist/terrorist’ nature including uncoordinated protest actions aimed at destabilizing the current view of Russia. Dissent towards the Russian government falls within the category of extremist views; therefore these protestors must be handled accordingly.
Russia has a historically horrific record when it comes to handling dissent. One such case is that of Alexie Navalny. Navalny is a long-time critic of Putin and is the leader of the Russia of the Future political party as well as a founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Navalny was involved in a series of protests calling for fair and open elections against the backdrop of another successive yet suspicious Putin election. The protests were organized by the Mayor of Moscow, with most taking part being detained during and shortly after the protests. Upon being detained, many of the protestors were refused lawyers, denied food and water, refused access to toilets, bedding or ventilation and had care packages from families stripped to their bare minimum.
Detainment & Detention
Russian police have detained 22 journalists alongside the over 5,500 protestors. Many of these journalists have been banned from reporting on official pro-Russia protests as well. This resulted in a further 4 journalists being detained and questioned but later released without charge. Another 4 journalists were detained just before one of these protests occurred. One of them was given a 3-day sentence for ‘disobeying’ a police officer, another was given a 10-day sentence for refusing to disclose the contents of his camera bag while a third was told ‘not to report on protests or face detention’. Alongside this, the head of the St. Petersburg Police announced that anyone caught wearing media vests was to be detained.
1. Excessive use of force
Excessive use of force is a common tactic employed at protests as a way of ensuring obedience and has most recently been seen in the Belarusian protests of the last few months. Russia is acting no differently with accusations of torture being made against the invading state. Since the invasion of Ukraine, over 13,500 people have been arbitrarily detained in connection with protests or dissent against Russia.
Numerous videos of police brutality have been posted online that reveal shocking efforts by Russian police to contain the protests. One video showed a man being kicked while he was being arrested, another was pushed to the ground and a third was hit with a baton during an arrest. Another man was beaten repeatedly by up to six police officers, he was then shocked with a taser before being taken away. Many protestors who have since been released have detailed their injuries, including; cuts, bruises, electric burns, concussion and open wounds.
2. Unlawful Interrogation Tactics
The excessive use of force in the public eye was not the only force being administered to the public. A number of audio recordings have been released that detail intense interrogations with threats and acts of physical violence against the protestors. One such audio clip involved Marina Morozova who was detained for allegedly participating in anti-war protests. In the clip, three officers can be heard aggressively questioning her, one of the officers hit her in the head before threatening to shoot her.
Another protestor, Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh was slapped, hit in the face with a water bottle, grabbed by her hair, threatened to be given electric shocks and had her phone broken during interrogation. After citing her right to not incriminate herself another hit can be heard followed by a police officer saying “the next one will be even harder”. Over the course of an 11-minute audio clip, there are countless instances of physical abuse given to Ms. Kaluzhskikh.
As the protests are primarily considered politically motivated, the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) is the most effective mechanism for assessing Russia’s liability for its reactions to the ongoing dissent.
1. Article 2
This Article states that each party to the ICCPR shall enforce and uphold the rights within without distinction to group identity, political identity is one of these categories. Therefore, the breaking up of protests because of the beliefs being discussed there can amount to a violation of the Article.
This would not necessarily apply if the breakup was based on a stressful need to maintain public order where there is a sufficient risk of violent civil unrest may occur. It could be argued on behalf of Russia that the breaking up of protests is sufficient to maintain public order. However, significant evidence points to the peaceful nature of these protests. Maintenance of public order requires not only that public order is threatened in a destabilizing way but that the stabilization process must be handled according to the principles of proportionality and necessity. For example, if a large group of protestors were asked to move from one location to another and did so peacefully but not quickly enough, firing tear gas at them to cause them to flee faster would be a disproportionate use of force to maintain public order.
This political motivation for pushing the crackdown was only emphasized when Putin gave his opinion on the anti-war protestors. He stated:
“But any nation, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like an insect in their mouth, spit them onto the pavement.”
As the ultimate ruler of Russia, Putin’s words carry extraordinary weight and can be used to confirm the nature of the crackdown. Using his own words there is clearly a strong distaste toward what Putin sees as politically atypical and anti-Russian views. This view he has of the protestors appears to have translated into the politically targeted crackdown upon his critics.
2. Article 9
This Article protects the individual from arbitrary arrest and detainment. As has been highlighted throughout, many thousands of protestors have been arbitrarily detained and held for interrogation for their involvement in the protests. This relates back to the maintenance of public order, but it’s not the security of public order at risk but the physical security of the individual. The same logic can be applied such that the arrest and detainment for the peaceful expression of counter-political views do not represent a proportionate nor necessary approach so long as no significant threat to public order exists.
When these individuals have been detained and arrested, many of them have been subjected to prolonged interrogations alongside physical abuse and attacks at the hands of police. This raises another concern regarding the infliction of circumstances amounting to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Examples such as those of Ms. Kaluzhskikh and Ms. Morozova certainly lead to the conclusion that in some instances, physical abuse amounting to inhuman treatment during detention has been inflicted. The same argument can be made for those who received physical abuse before being officially taken to a police station. Testimonies of individuals being kicked, tasered and hit with batons during arrest all lead to the conclusion that those arrests were arbitrary in nature. While the Russian police may have arrested those individuals for a genuine reason that’s not yet disclosed, the process of ensuring compliance during the arrest and further potential physical consequences during interrogation brings the arbitrary nature of the arrests into the limelight.
3. Article 22
Freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed by this Article. These rights may be restricted in; the pursuit of public order, national security, public safety, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. As mentioned prior, Russia has a translated version of this in their Constitution, showing at least some indication they would be willing to consider upholding the rights. Russia was evidently not in the pursuit of public order during their crackdown because they have no justification for the use of force being deployed against peaceful protests. The pressing social need to control disorder is simply not present in this case.
Restriction of this right must be provided by law. It is already provided by international law and the Russian Constitution. However, a piece of legislation Russia passed in 2014 operates in stark contrast to what is required of the state.
Article 212.1 (Russian Legislation)
This provision criminalizes repeated administrative violations of the law governing public assemblies. The Article is extremely restrictive and creates a monopoly effect over the exercising of freedom of assembly. Some of these restrictive criteria involve; a requirement of notification for authorities far in advance regarding any planned and upcoming public assemblies, assemblies must be approved before they can occur and the imposition of administrative charges if the two prior criteria are not met. Therefore, all anti-war protestors are currently liable for administrative charges such as fines and other civil liabilities because the protests have not been approved by Russian authorities. This notion operates in total contrast to the design of freedom of assembly and association. The ‘freedom’ element is clear and does not require state approval before being exercised. It would be the exact same if every tweet sent in Russia is checked by Russian authorities in the pursuit of ‘free’ speech.
Alongside civil liability, there are also criminal implications for violation of Article 212.1. One such unlucky individual, Ildar Dadin, is pursuing judicial review over the legality of Article 212.1 because criminal charges can be administered for participation in unauthorized assemblies. These criminal charges are internationally questionable as is but become more so when the criminal trials occur. Claims have been made that these prosecutions are almost ‘parody trials’ lasting sometimes no longer than 5 minutes with no key witnesses summoned and the blind acceptance of police testimonies.
In conclusion, the tactics employed by the Russian government are nothing more than a ploy to suppress its own political opposition. These discriminatory tactics are reflective of the distaste the Russian government has for what it views as unpatriotic ideology. From these tactics, a clear set of violations of freedom of assembly and association have manifested resulting in Russia being in breach of its international obligations and its own Constitution.
Image: Protest in Yekaterinburg on 24 February 2022 (Source: CC BY-SA 4.0)via