Russian authorities should promptly and effectively investigate reports of excessive use of force against protesters and arbitrary detentions during and following a protest on May 6, 2012, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also investigate the allegedly arbitrary detention of hundreds of activists demonstrating peacefully on May 7, Human Rights Watch said.
In the late afternoon of May 6, tens of thousands of protesters marched in central Moscow and began to assemble for a rally sanctioned by the Moscow authorities at Bolotnaya Square, near the Kremlin. After a bottleneck created by police security held up thousands of the protesters on the way to the main rally site, several leaders of the opposition called a sit-down strike and a handful of protesters tried to break through a police line, in some cases using violence. Police responded with force, including using rubber truncheons, detaining hundreds of people, including peaceful protesters as well as those who were acting aggressively.
“Though some protesters apparently disobeyed police orders and even attacked police officers, we received many credible reports of police detaining peaceful protesters along with those who violated the law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We are also concerned about allegations of police brutality, including beatings and causing unnecessary pain and suffering.”
The May 6 protest was the first in which violence erupted since public protests began on a periodic basis in December 2011.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Russian authorities are using the disorderly behavior of some of the demonstrators on May 6 as a pretext to further curb freedom of assembly. According to the European Court of Human Rights, an unauthorized peaceful protest does not justify an infringement on freedom of assembly, but requires a certain degree of tolerance on the part of the authorities. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations of those obligations.
The right of peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Russia is a party, as well as by the Russian Constitution. As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, the freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that a person cannot be subjected to a sanction – even one at the lower end of the scale of disciplinary penalties – for participation in a demonstration that has not been prohibited, so long as this person does not himself commit any reprehensible act on such an occasion.
“Contentious protests happen all over the world and human rights law imposes a duty on the state to protect the public from violence,” Williamson said. “However, the authorities should not use violent actions by some protesters to attack human rights, including the rights to free assembly and free expression.”