The first sentences under a new law limiting freedom of association in Russia are coming into effect. Their target? ‘Malicious picket-holders’. Русский
On 7 December, the first sentence under a new law to limit freedom of association was passed. For activist Ildar Dadin, 33, his commitment to protest has led to a three-year prison sentence. The next day, Vladimir Ionov, a Moscow pensioner, was also due to face sentencing under the same law, but fell ill the next morning. Ionov is currently in intensive care, and the sentencing has been postponed.
This new addition to Russia’s Criminal Code, Article 212.1, was introduced in summer 2014 in response to the events in Ukraine. It carries a potential sentence of up to five years or a million rouble fine (£9,300).
Judging by the courts’ current behaviour, cases are opened under this article after an activist receives three administrative sentences for breaking rules on holding pickets and demonstrations. Instead of a fourth administrative charge, though, a criminal case is opened. By which point, the accused has usually built up a significant amount of administrative fines, and sometimes days spent in police stations.
At this moment, when protest movements are at their nadir in Russia, there’s only a few of these ‘malicious picketers’—four in total: Ildar Dadin, Vladimir Ionov, Mark Galerpin and Irina Kalmykova.
Ildar Dadin, a former security guard from the town of Zheleznodorozhnyi near Moscow, became involved in protesting during the ‘White Ribbon’ campaign of 2011-2012. According to Dadin, he began to use Facebook instead of the popular social networking site VKontakte, changing his circle of friends completely.
Dadin took part in many different demonstrations—observing polling stations during elections, supporting LGBT rights, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and democratic forces in Ukraine. He even traveled to Kyiv during the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych—which was cited as an ‘aggravating circumstance’ by the judge during sentencing.
Vladimir Ionov, meanwhile, is a protest veteran, having taken part in anti-Putin protests since the 2000s. He has gone out practically every week to Manezh square, opposite the Kremlin, to protest against Vladimir Putin. Indeed, by and large, Ionov prefers solitary pickets, which do not require approval from the local authorities. He was detained in January 2015 after two protests, one in support of the Navalny brothers and the other - Charlie Hebdo.
Mark Galperin, a marketing manager, has regularly held solo pickets across Moscow over the past few years in an attempt to create his own ‘Movement for a change of power’. Irina Kalmykova, a 52-year old mother of three, came to Moscow from Siberia, claiming that her home had been burnt down and her business stolen. Not finding support from the authorities, Kalmykova became close to the opposition and participated in a range of demonstrations, including one in support of Nadezhda Savchenko.
the majority of opposition party structures are either suppressed or subordinated to the authorities
Indeed, Dadin, Ionov, Kalmykova, Galperin and their friends held out the majority of solo street pickets in Moscow. None of them are members of any party, opposition or otherwise, but know each other well. As Aleksandr Shcherbakov, an activist from this circle, explains, the majority of opposition party structures are either suppressed or subordinated to the authorities.
Current liberal protest actions are largely coordinated without party support. Instead, there are several dozen people—from the 2011-2012 ‘White Ribbon’ campaign and after—involved in working out a consensus on various political issues, but who carry out protests independently.
According to Ildar Dadin’s lawyer Kseniya Kostromina, Dadin, who had previously been kept under house arrest, accepted the three year sentence with courage. People present at the sentencing, however, were surprised: even the public prosecutor requested a two-year sentence, rather than three. After the sentencing, Dadin’s friends began to shout slogans of support, and court personnel dragged people out of the hall by force.
The public prosecutor requested a three-year conditional sentence for Vladimir Ionov, as well as a ban on visiting public events. Kostromina also represents Mark Galperin, and states that there’s been no progress on the investigation into his case for a while. Kalmykova’s trial began in October.
According to OVD-Info, an organisation that monitors freedom of association and political repression in Russia, these four cases under Article 212.1 were opened in violation of that very same code. To be charged under this article, the authorities require evidence of previous administrative charges. The Moscow courts, though, almost always support the police in conflicts between activists and police officers. If a police officer states that ‘this person shouted slogans and offered physical resistance’, then that’s it: it doesn’t matter if you have a video of the event that shows the person in question not shouting slogans and not offering physical resistance.
Moreover, even if you’re holding a solo picket, a provokator can approach you, turn the picket into an ‘unapproved mass action’ and then leave quietly as you’re taken away. This is the scenario for most arrests undertaken under Article 212.1. They can detain you on whatever grounds—a protest in support of Ukraine, Alexei Navalny, small businessmen, Charlie Hebdo. The police aren’t interest in what you’re protesting for or against—they’re fighting against street activity, end of story.
Speaking to Nikoali Zboroshenko, a lawyer with Public Verdict, a Russian NGO that offers legal assistance to people facing rights abuses, he tells me that the majority of administrative charges have been sent to the European Court of Human Rights for appeal. Zboroshenko is confident that Strasbourg will find in favour of the picket-holders. If at least one of the administrative charges is taken for re-examination, the criminal cases will have to be re-examined too. That said, Zboroshenko notes that the ECHR works so slowly that such decisions are likely to be made when Ildar Dadin has already finished his three-year sentence.
The author of this new law, Duma deputy Aleksandr Sidyakin, has stated that he doesn’t follow how the article is implemented in practice, and is thus unable to comment on Dadin’s sentence. For Dmitry Dinze, who represents Vladimir Ionov, the courts and investigators are misinterpreting Article 212.1. While the phrase ‘breaking the established order of organising or conducting a meeting’ can be applied to the organisers of unapproved protests, it can’t be applied to people taking part in them—though Dinze is yet to convince the Russian justice system of that just yet.