authorities have arbitrarily arrested thousands of peaceful protesters at anti-war rallies across Russia, in line with their increasingly brutal crackdown on those who disagree with Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said today.
The police used excessive force against protesters while detaining them and, in several instances, inflicted abuse amounting to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment, on those in custody. According to OVD-Info, the leading human rights project working to protect freedom of assembly in Russia, 13,500 people have been arbitrarily arrested since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“Russian authorities continue to deny people the right to freedom of assembly and stifle the voices of those who disagree with Russia’s war in Ukraine,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The escalating police violence illustrates the length to which Russian authorities will go to intimidate and silence dissent.”
During mass protests on March 6, police detained about 5,000 people in 69 cities, according to OVD-Info. On March 8, International Women’s Day, the police detained dozens of protesters at peaceful rallies across the country. That day women across Russia laid flowers next to monuments to protest the war.
Since February 24, Russian authorities have vigorously suppressed public expressions of disapproval of the government’s official narrative, including by blocking independent media, criminalizing independent media reporting and calls to end the war, and by targeting peaceful protesters.
Social media posts documenting incidents on March 6 show peaceful protesters being detained for holding placards, marching, and chanting “no to war!” for wearing ribbons or clothing in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag, for filming arrests or simply, apparently, while passing by.
Police used violence against protesters on multiple occasions. OVD-Info reported at least 34 cases in which the police beat protesters on March 6.
Numerous videos filmed in various cities show the police using excessive force as they arrest people. A video from Moscow shows five police officers detaining a man, while one of them kicks him. In Saint Petersburg police officers are seen pushing a man to the ground and punching him. A police officer in Moscow hit a protester with his baton while the officer and fellow officers had the protester restrained and were carrying him.
In Saint Petersburg, between four and six police officers were filmed beating a man, pinned to the ground, with batons and then appear to administer electric shocks to him. The man is shouting that he is not a protester and was simply passing by. The use of an electroshock weapon on a person clearly in police custody violates the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Detainees reported sustaining cuts, bruises, and electric burns. One protester allegedly suffered a concussion and another had an open laceration on his head, allegedly inflicted during his arrest. Some detainees were hospitalized.
Detainees also reported degrading and inhuman treatment, including torture, at police stations.
Police in Moscow detained Marina Morozova, 22, for allegedly participating in the anti-war protests and took her to the Bratayevo police station. She was able to discretely make an audio recording inside the station. In the audio, which she later shared with the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta, three police officers can be heard questioning her. One unidentified policeman was especially aggressive, insulting Morozova, punching her in the head, and threatening to shoot her and smash the chair into her head.
Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh, 26, also managed to discretely record audio while she was being questioning at Bratayevo. She shared this with OVD-Info. It appears that the same unidentified police officer who interrogated Morozova, slapped Kaluzhskikh, hit her in the face with a water bottle, grabbed her by the hair, threatened to give her electric shocks, and smashed her phone.
“Do you think I will be punished somehow? Putin told us to kill you [all]. Putin is on our side,” says the unidentified officer in the audio. “You are enemies of the state. You are enemies of the nation. We will get a bonus for this.”
Four other women reported to Novaya Gazeta that police officers at Bratayevo held them down while pouring water on their faces, which one of the women said made her feel like she was drowning. The description given by the women suggests the police subjected them to treatment commonly known as waterboarding, which constitutes torture. The women also said the police grabbed them by the hair, slapped them in the face, threatened them with sexual assault, and kicked them in the stomach.
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner, filed a complaint with the Internal Affairs Ministry, calling for investigations into these incidents at the Bratayevo police station.
OVD-Info also reported that officers at police stations across the country routinely threatened detainees with violence. Even though they were detained for alleged administrative offenses, detainees were forced to have their photo and fingerprints taken and surrender their telephones, contrary to Russian law.
Lawyers reported that they were denied access to their clients at police stations for hours and were not allowed to represent their clients at court hearings. Officers in at least seven police stations in Moscow, including Bratayevo, Saint Petersburg, and Irkutsk, initiated the “Fortress” protocol, which is authorized for a situation of potential attack and involves closing access to the station for outside visitors, including lawyers.
The authorities detained at least 13 journalists covering protests in seven cities across Russia. Some of them were detained even though they were wearing press vests and had accreditation and/or had documents stating they were on editorial assignment.
According to OVD-Info, at least 113 children were detained.
Also on March 6, police arrested Svetlana Gannushkina as she was exiting the metro, charged her with violating the rules on public gathering, and released her a little later that day. Gannushkina is head of the Civic Assistance Committee, which works to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, and it was her 80th birthday.
The police also detained Oleg Orlov, a member of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Center, the preeminent human rights organization that authorities shut down in December. Orlov was holding a placard reading “Peace to Ukraine, Freedom to Russia.”
On March 4, police raided Memorial’s and Civic Assistance’s offices, preventing lawyers and employees of the organizations from accessing the premises for 14 hours. When the search was complete, Memorial staff found the letters “Z” and “V” – widely recognized symbols of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine – and “Memorial is finished” written on their office walls.
On March 5, authorities also carried out dozens of raids at human rights defenders’ and activists’ homes, arresting some of them, apparently because they had allegedly participated in the peaceful anti-war movement.
The authorities’ unlawful interference with the rights to peaceful protest and liberty and security, as well as freedoms of expression and opinion, violates Russia’s international human rights obligations. These rights are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Russia’s own constitution. The allegations of police abuse amounting to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment are also serious violations of the ECHR, ICCPR and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The authorities should immediately end the crackdown on peaceful exercise of civil and political rights in Russia and conduct prompt and effective investigations into all alleged cases of prohibited ill-treatment, with the view of bringing those responsible to account.
“Excessive police violence against peaceful protesters is designed to punish and intimidate those who disagree with the official narrative,” Williamson said. “All the more reason we should show solidarity with the thousands of peaceful protesters across the country who courageously continue to exercise their rights.”