Trampling on the Right to Protest

After Russia
5 min readMar 21, 2023

How Russian government has been restricting the right to protest over time

Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov. Photo by Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

On December 5th, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed the law forbidding demonstrations almost everywhere. However, the trampling on the right to protest started much earlier.

Article 31 of the Russian Constitution guarantees the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, hold an assembly, a protest or demonstration, marсh or picket.

2004

In 2004 Russia adopted a law on protests. It introduced rules organisers and participants of public gatherings should follow. For example, organisers must inform the authorities about the protest no earlier than 15 and no later than 10 days before the day of the public event (no need if it is a one-man protest). The law also describes the places where demonstrations cannot be held (e.g. railroad lines). Overall, the first version of the law entered into force in the mid-noughties is quite similar to those in European democratic countries. The main purpose was to organise people, not to control them.

Everything changed after mass protests against the falsifications of the parliament and president elections results took place in 2011–2013.

Solo protest

One-man protests are allowed without notice if there are no other people involved and ‘connected by the same idea or organisation,’ and a person does not have a temporary structure (in this case the notice must be given no later than 3 days in advance). A picketer has to stay still and cannot move around.

2011–2013

The mass protests started with a few hundred people and gained at their peak 150,000 participants were followed a new law imposing penalties on protesters who engaged in unauthorised demonstrations. From that moment on, people who wished to protest had to get permission for that from the local authorities. With the average salary of 30,000 rubles, for people outside the capital, the minimum fine of 10,000 rubles could be a real dent in a wallet. What is interesting is that this law introduced a new notion of an organiser of the mass gathering which is not a public event. The organiser in this case is the person who de facto coordinates people. Later on, when local authorities stopped giving permissions for protests, and people gathered unauthorised, a prominent opposition member or a random protestor could be named an organiser just for helping people cross the street, and he or she could get a fine from 150,000 to 300,000 rubles.

Hyde parks

So-called ‘Hyde parks’ were supposed to become places where everyone could freely exercise their right to protest but were heavily regulated from the very beginning. Local authorities provided the places for gatherings far from city centres where protesters could not be heard. Giving people places of nominal freedom with one hand, the government took all other possibilities away with other by demanding to seek the approval of gatherings in other places. Amendments to the law on rallies introduced criteria for eligible public events. Since then, the opposition’s public events have been almost always being banned on formal grounds.

2014

Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code on repeatedly violating the rules of organising street events entered into force in July 2014. According to this article, if a court has issued two rulings on administrative offences within 180 days, the person could be considered repeatedly violating the law. The lightest penalty under the article is a fine of 600,000 rubles, and the heaviest — 5-year jail time. In December 2015, activist Ildar Dadin was sentenced for 3 years, but in February 2017 Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ordered his release from prison, and recognised his right to rehabilitation.

2017–2021

The list of amendments accepted:

  • Prohibition on participation in rallies for minors. A fine from 30,000 to 50,000 rubles can be imposed.
  • Prohibition on the abuse of the right to protest. According to the Article 20.23 Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences, it’s forbidden to file a notice of holding a public event without the intention to actually hold it. A fine from 25,000 to 100,000 rubles can be imposed.
  • Prohibition on funding protests from foreign sources. Fines for “unlawful” sponsorship and failing to report to the authorities how funds have been used.
  • Increasing penalty for disobedience to law enforcement agent’s orders.

It’s also worth mentioning that the police often use against protestors Article 318 of the Criminal Code on the violence against representatives of the power. Some criminal cases were utterly ridiculous, like persecution of Sergey Abanichev for throwing a single-serving soft drink can at a police officer.

“Then they will start shooting and vandalising shops. We should not allow that,” commented Vladimir Putin on the case.

Note: Currently, the beginning of trampling on the right to protest can be seen in the UK as a response to climate activists’ bold methods.

COVID-19

Every country handled the pandemic differently. Russian authorities used it as a new oppression tool.

In April 2020, Vladimir Putin signed the bill into the law criminalising the violation of sanitary rules. According to the Article 236 of the Criminal Code, minimal punishment for “violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules, which through negligence caused a mass disease or poisoning of people, or created a threat of such consequences” is a fine from 500,000 to 700,000 rubles, and maximum penalty — a prison time of up to 2 years (5 years if 1 person died, and up to 7 years if more than 2 people died).

After a pro-Navalny rally that took place on January 23 in Moscow, ten opposition leader’s associates were accused of violations of pandemic restrictions. Most of them were sentenced to “restrictions on freedom”. For example, Lyubov Sobol got 18 months of “restriction”. Later on, investigators used the same article against opposition figures in Murmansk, Saratov, and Nizhny Novgorod, claiming that the posts on social media informing about the rallies were “endangering people”. For instance, Natalia Rezontova, the journalist from Nizhny Novgorod, got the “restriction of certain actions”, including the usage of mobile phone and computer, which left her unable to work.

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