Arresting numbers

Human rights defenders in Russia have released data on the numbers of Russians arrested at protests; and what they were protesting about.

Alexandr Litoy
15 July 2014

At the beginning of 2013, openDemocracy published an article about OVD-Info, a project that recorded arrests of protesters, in real time, and then analysed the data.

The research of OVD-Info is interesting not only because it provides a scrupulous record of how the police in Russia violate both the country’s own laws and international norms on freedom of assembly, but also because it provides a record of what Russians are protesting about.

A single-person picket opposing the 'gay propaganda' law attracts the ire of a passerby.

A single-person picket opposing the 'gay propaganda' law attracts the ire of a passerby. CC Roma Yandolin

A year and a half later, OVD-Info prepared a new report on how the police combat civic activism on the streets, after the mass ‘white ribbon’ protests came to naught. ‘Protest has had the brakes put on,’ is how OVD-Info characterises street protests in 2013 and the first quarter of 2014.

‘Protest has had the brakes put on.’

OVD-Info is a part of the human rights centre ‘Memorial,’ one of the leading NGOs in Russia; It was OVD-Info’s activities that were behind the court case that led to Memorial being declared a ‘foreign agent.’ If the courts end up ruling in favour of the prosecution, the activities of Memorial will be paralysed.

Despite this pressure, OVD-Info not only takes calls from people who have been arrested (the work is spread out among everybody who works at the project), but also searches for new themes for ‘monitoring state violence’ (which are described at the top of OVD-Info’s site). The scope of monitoring this year is not only street arrests, but also other types of repression against civic activists.

Arresting numbers

For a long time it was unknown how many political street protests took place in Russia. Regional authorities hold accessible statistics on ‘all mass cultural events’ – but which fail to include unsanctioned protests – yet all the cases registered by OVD-Info amounted to less than one percent of ‘sanctioned mass cultural events.’ Data on those arrests gives an idea of what are the most important issues of street politics. 

In 2013, OVD-Info followed arrests in Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Voronezh, and their surrounding regions. In 2013, in Moscow and Moscow Region, 1463 arrests of activists were recorded in the course of 169 events. In comparison with 2012, the number of events, which ended in arrests is down by 20%, but the total number of those arrested is down by 62%. The average number of people arrested per protest is down from 18.2 to 8.7.

In 2013, in Moscow and Moscow region, 1463 arrests of activists were recorded in the course of 169 events.

In St Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad Region, 461 people were arrested at 42 events. In Nizhny Novgorod and Voronezh (and their surrounding regions) there were 81 and 33 arrests at 19 and 4 events, respectively.

The most commonly invoked laws used during arrest at public demonstrations in Moscow were Article 20.2 (Disturbing the peace during a protest); Article 19.3 (Refusing to obey the lawful order of a police officer); and 20.1 (Petty hooliganism), of Russia’s criminal code.

Igor Martynenko was fined 20,000 roubles (£340) for unveiling an anti-war flag at a (sanctioned) United Russia demonstration

Igor Martynenko was fined 20,000 roubles (£340) for unveiling an anti-war flag at a (sanctioned) United Russia demonstration.

In unusual cases there were other laws invoked: on despoiling green areas, jaywalking, unsanctioned distribution of information materials, and blocking a public road. There is now a new law against ‘Propagandisation of non-traditional sexual relations among minors’ (Article 6.21 of the Criminal Code).

The legal system

Despite the significant increase in fines for refusing to obey a police officer’s lawful order (Article 20.2), up from 500-1000 roubles (£8.5-£17) to 10,000-30,000 roubles (£170-£505), the way the courts function has not changed. OVD-Info has recorded ‘legal nihilism’ during the arrests at protests and at the subsequent court hearings: people arrested simply for being in the vicinity of an unsanctioned protest are accused of actions they have not committed. The testimony of a police officer in court is valued much higher than even a video recording of the incident.

In unusual cases there were other laws invoked: on despoiling green areas, jaywalking…

According to the Russian Supreme Court, in 2013, in the whole country, 1377 people were fined under Article 20.2, with the average fine coming to 9,386 roubles  (£160). At the same time, the official living wage in Russia for 2013 was 8,000 roubles (£135) a month.

Criminal investigations against those arrested in street protests have become more common. In 2013, the number of protests taking place in Moscow that led to a criminal investigation being launched, grew to at least seven. In 2012, apart from the infamous ‘Bolotnoye Case’ there was only one case of a protest leading to a criminal investigation.

The coordinator of OVD-Info, Grigory Okhotin, notes that while previously, criminal proceedings were only threatened, now they are actually brought to bear. The practice of using the ‘Law on violence against police’ was unveiled in the ‘Bolotnoye Case,’ and is now used in many different circumstances.

The smaller the city, the fewer arrests. Moscow leads by a significant margin in terms of the number of arrests. In contrast to Moscow, in other regions those arrested are subject to administrative, not criminal proceedings. In the regions, the police arrest protesters at the start of a protest, to prevent it going ahead.

'Free the 6 May prisoners' - Protests calling for the release of those arrested in the 'Bolotnoye Case' have become more common.

'Free the 6 May prisoners' - Protests calling for the release of those arrested in the 'Bolotnoye Case' have become more common.

In the period from January to March of 2014, there were 1598 arrests recorded in the course of 45 protests – more than were arrested for the whole of 2013.  In St Petersburg, there were at least 192 people arrested in connection with 21 protest actions. The number of those arrested in the regions, however was minimal.

‘Many of those arrests came after the sentencing of the ‘Bolotnoye’ at the end of February,’ says Okhotin (since the end of May 2012 up until March 2014, during the course of 65 protests against the ‘Bolotnoye Case’ there have been at least 1450 people arrested). ‘At the start of May, mass arrests began in connection with events in Ukraine. Civil society woke up for two weeks and is now once again fast asleep.’ 

Forms of protest

In Moscow, most of those arrested (38.1%) were attending protests in support of political prisoners – 23.7% of all protests recorded. The unified protest movement against Putin, seen in 2012, has come to naught, as have protests in favour of ‘honest elections.’ ‘The subject of political repression became topical for society in 2012, and since then has been at the forefront of protests,’ notes Okhotin. 

The unified protest movement against Putin, popular in 2012 has come to naught.

Natalia Smirnova of OVD-Info underlines  that today it is mainly protests in defence of political prisoners that are the main subject of anti-government protests; and if in 2013, the number of those arrested was less than in 2012, the subject of political prisoners has become more acute. 

Like in 2012, among the protests that led to arrests, the majority were spontaneous or organised by informal groups.

But of all the forms of protest, the most risky is a mass demonstration – this type of protest is the one with the largest amount of arrests. Smirnova notes that this came about due to the demonstrations of nationalists. At the same time, OVD-Info’s statistics fail to take into account far from all the arrests of nationalists because there is not always enough information to judge to what extent they were justified. For example, the riots in Biryulyovo and the arrests that took place during them at the end of 2013 did not ‘go into the report’ of OVD-Info. 

Sochi, Ukraine, Navalny

Researching arrests that happened during the protests against the Sochi Olympics, OVD-Info gathered data on more than just the five cities mentioned above. For ‘anti-Olympic’ protests there were no fewer than 155 people arrested in the course of 42 protest actions in 26 cities in Russia.

'March for Peace' on 15 March 2014 in Moscow. Banner reads 'Hands off Ukraine.'

'March for Peace' on 15 March 2014 in Moscow. Banner reads 'Hands off Ukraine.' CC Dhārmikatva

At the end of 2013, a wave of arrests began at protests concerning events in Ukraine. A total count from December 2013 through March 2014, in Moscow, listed 458 arrests at 17 protests, but in St Petersburg there were only 40 at 4 such protests.

From April 2013 through to March 2014, in the capital there were 249 arrests in the course of 11 protests concerning the criminal proceedings against Aleksei Navalny or in favour of his campaign for Mayor of Moscow. 

The number of protests in defence of LGBT rights has become statistically significant.

Instead of common-cause protests, there were other reasons for protesting: ‘social’ (20.7% of protests, and 12.5% of those arrested); and the place formerly occupied by protests ‘for honest elections’ (11.3% of protests in 2012) is now occupied by ‘elections’ (6.5%), mostly due to the mayoral elections in Moscow. The number of protests in defence of LGBT rights has become statistically significant, increasing from 0.9% to 7.1%; and the figure of those arrested at such protests is 11.4% of the total (up from 1.2% in 2012).  The percentage of those arrested at nationalist protests has also increased (now reaching 8.5% of arrests). 

Regional variations

The spectrum of reasons for protests was significantly wider in Moscow than in other regions – ten as compared to seven in St Petersburg, six in Nizhny Novgorod, and two in Voronezh.

In St Petersburg and Leningrad Region, in 2013 there were no fewer than 461 people arrested at 42 protests. The average number arrested per protest was 11, the highest, on average, compared to the other regions included in OVD-Info’s statistics (the average for the four regions was 8.7). 

The most common arrests in St Petersburg were at mass demonstrations: at 13 mass demonstrations (composing 31% of total protests) there were 219 people arrested (47.5% of the total arrests for the year). Less common were arrests at one-person pickets (16.7%), mass pickets, and handing out fliers (5%). In other cases, the arrests were during marches, occupations and ‘walks.’ 

Almost half of the St Petersburg protests that ended in arrests (20 of 42 or 47.6%) were not organised by a widely known political or social movement, they represented 24.9% of arrests. These included the Narodny Skhody (loosely translated as ‘People’s Conferences’), organised by nationalists; the breaking up of ‘LGBT Pride;’ the arrests of single-person pickets (including those about LGBT rights); the clearing of the squat around Warsaw train station; the arrests of artists who have carried out 'illegal'actions; the arrest of activists who were handing out flyers in support of those accused in the ‘Bolotnoye case;’ and the breaking up of the strike on the ‘Antolin’ factory.

Most arrests were recorded at spontaneous protests, which lacked clear organisers. They accounted for about half of the total number of arrests in the region (222 out of 461, or 48.2%). 

Nationalist-themed protests led the numbers of arrests with 167 of 461 arrests (36.2%). Coming in a distant second, were protests concerning political prisoners, with 72 people arrested (15.6%) or which 64 were arrested at a Narodny Skhod in support of Aleksei Navalny, followed by protests by Strategy 31 (12.6% of arrests). and protests in support of LGBT rights (12.1%). 

New restrictions

In 2013, new restrictions on street protests came into effect. At the same time, fines were increased for administrative violations, for participants in protests. The circle of possible organisers was decreased, and their responsibility for the actions of those who came to the protests was increased. In February 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that the harsh 2012 ‘Law on Demonstrations’ did not violate the Constitution, but did demand that the minimum fine for such violation be lowered, to allow judges the ability to ‘individualise’ the punishment.

Despite the promises made by parliamentarians in the Duma to correct the law within six months, by the end of 2013 this still had not been done; and the courts continued to issue those arrested with massive fines, ignoring the Constitutional Court’s permission to start issuing fines less than the minimum of 10,000 roubles.

In 2013, local laws changed, defining special zones for carrying out protest actions.

In 2013, local laws changed, defining special zones for carrying out protest actions, with a simplified procedure for receiving permission to protest, a minimal distance between one-person pickets, and places where protest is completely forbidden. 

Regional laws now forbid protesting on crowded streets and squares, close to public transport stations and train stations, sports, cultural, educational, medical or government service centres, cathedrals, building sites; and even on pavements.

The restrictions vary widely across the country. The density of people allowed at a mass demonstration varies from one to eight people per two square metres. The minimal distance allowed between one-person pickets varies from 10 to 50 metres. The Moscow City Duma has declared that single-person pickets (by law they require no prior agreement) that are for a ‘united aim or have a single organiser’ are a single protest which require official permission.

The number of ‘Hyde Parks’ (places where political gatherings are permitted without the permission of the authorities) also varies, as does their distance from the city centre in St Petersburg, there is one square set aside; in Moscow there are two; and in Tver (with a population of less than 500,000 people) there are six.   

In December 2013, an instruction appeared about events permitted on Red Square. Officially this list has not been announced, but the media listed seven yearly events: including the 9 May Victory Day parade… 

Vladimir Putin has signed a law especially for the 2018 World Cup.

The World Cup in Brazil has only just finished, but the Kremlin is already preparing for 2018: Vladimir Putin has signed a law especially for the 2018 World Cup, to be held in Russia. that allows the head of state to limit ‘public gatherings not linked to sporting competitions,’ for the provision of public safety during the tournament.’

Photo two: CC OVD-Info

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