b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities increasingly restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of the law on public assembly, up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,000) for groups or companies.
Under the law the government may punish “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law provides that the government may levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events and prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings. Protesters who violate the regulations multiple times within a six-month period may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,000) or imprisoned for up to five years. In December 2015 a Moscow court sentenced Ildar Dadin to three years’ imprisonment for participation in four protests constituting “repeated violations of the rules on conducting public acts.” Two more activists, Irina Kalmykova and 76-year-old Vladimir Ionov, fled the country to avoid similar charges. In January, Presidential Human Rights Council chairman Mikhail Fedotov criticized the law and called on authorities to remove it from the criminal code.
In April authorities arrested Maxim Panfilov in Astrakhan on charges of taking part in a mass riot and assaulting a police officer, making him the 36th and most recent person charged in connection with the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case. Originally initiated in connection with clashes between police and protesters at demonstrations on the eve of President Putin’s inauguration (see section 1.e.), the term for Bolotnaya investigations was extended through September.
There were reports that activists were subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. In February in Chelyabinsk, unknown attackers beat Vyacheslav Kislitsin, an organizer of a local march to commemorate the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, outside of the factory where he worked. Kislitsin suffered a heart attack and a broken rib and had to be hospitalized. Kislitsin was quoted as claiming that local police officers were among his attackers.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned and at times used disproportionate force when doing so. On April 8, Moscow authorities arrested several protesters, including Dmitriy Boynov, for protesting the construction of a building at Park Dubki. Boynov was beaten by police and hospitalized with a fractured leg as well as contusions on his back and chest (see section 1.c.). On April 29, police in Sochi attacked and dispersed a protest by approximately 100 residents of the Lazarev district against the closure of a pedestrian crossing leading to the sea, according to Caucasian Knot. According to witnesses, law enforcement authorities arrived at the peaceful demonstration and began forcibly removing and beating people, leading to the hospitalization of several protesters.
In its annual report in February, AI noted that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly remained severely curtailed. The report also noted that protests were infrequent, their number having declined following severe restrictions introduced in earlier years.
On February 26, the State Duma adopted a law requiring that “motor rallies” and other “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. The new law requires gatherings that will interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. Consequently, single-person pickets remained the sole form of public protest that does not require official approval.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted “single-person pickets,” which require there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. On June 15, Moscow police arrested opposition leader Leonid Volkov for a single-person picket outside the Federation Council building in Moscow protesting the reappointment of Yuriy Chayka as prosecutor general. According to police, the street where Volkov was protesting was considered “protected territory” and therefore, an illegal venue to stage a picket.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI individuals and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI individuals are a “protected class” and should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting so-called propaganda of homosexuality to minors (see section 6) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and their supporters the right of assembly and was used on multiple occasions to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In May, Moscow City officials refused an application by representatives of the LGBTI community to hold a parade, upholding a 2012 decision to prohibit gay parades in Moscow for 100 years, despite an ECHR ruling that the ban contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The Russian Constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.
Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government expanded its use of a 2012 law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as foreign agents, to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of NGOs. During the year the Ministry of Justice added 37 NGOs to the list of foreign agents. At the end of the year, 150 NGOs were designated as foreign agents.
In addition to continued widespread inspections of NGOs designated as foreign agents, authorities began to levy heavy fines against NGOs for failing to disclose foreign agent status on websites or printed materials. According to HRW, while authorities inspected a wide range of designated civil society groups from nearly every region of the country, groups that were warned, fined, or prosecuted generally were those active in areas such as election monitoring, human rights advocacy, anticorruption work, and environmental protection. During inspections law enforcement agencies typically brought representatives from as many as a dozen different bodies, including fire inspectors, tax inspectors, and health and safety inspectors, to issue citations to NGOs. In addition, state-controlled media crews frequently accompanied authorities during such inspections. On June 27, authorities also initiated criminal charges for the first time under the foreign agents law against the NGO Union of the Women of the Don. As of August 30, the case was still under consideration.
Organizations the government deemed as foreign agents reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. As a result some organizations discontinued their work and closed their doors. Notable NGOs that closed included St. Petersburg’s Antidiscrimination Center Memorial and the Committee against Torture. In February the Supreme Court of Tatarstan ruled to liquidate the NGO AGORA at the request of the Ministry of Justice for violations of the law on foreign agents. This was the first case of a so-called foreign agent forced to close based on a court ruling.
In May at the behest of President Putin, the government clarified and ultimately expanded the definition of political activities covered under the foreign agent law. Putin signed the related amendments in June. Under the new definition, political activities include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempts to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
On September 5, the Ministry of Justice added the first polling organization, the Levada Center, to the register of foreign agents, for the first time making use of the expanded definition of political activity. The addition came two weeks before the State Duma election and only days after the Levada Center published a poll showing a significant decline in support for the ruling United Russia party. The Levada Center indicated in the press that it would have to close if the decision was not canceled, because conducting polling with such a stigma attached would be impossible. The expanded definition of political activity was widely criticized by civil society NGOs, as well as the government’s own Presidential Human Rights Council.
In 2015 the foreign agent law was amended to create a mechanism to allow qualifying NGOs to be removed from the foreign agent list. To be delisted, the NGO in question must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving it received no foreign funding or engaged in no political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list. During the year only six NGOs were successful in their efforts to qualify for removal from the foreign agent list. In such cases, however, the Ministry of Justice did not remove the organizations from the list on its website but noted in a separate column the date the NGO qualified for removal and “ceased performing the functions of a foreign agent.”
Use of the law on “undesirable” foreign organizations expanded during the year with the additions of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Media Development Fund to the list of such organizations. The organizations joined the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society, Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, and the U.S.-Russia Foundation. According to the definition of the law, a foreign organization may be found undesirable if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” To date, authorities have not clarified what specific threats the undesirable NGOs posed to the country. In accordance with the law, any foreign organization deemed undesirable must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that “pose a threat to the country” that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are also subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which prohibits these NGOs from having dual Russian-U.S. citizen members.
There were multiple reports that civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. On March 16, a mob of unidentified individuals attacked Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, in Chechnya. No arrests were made in connection with the attack. The attack occurred a week after masked men, armed with baseball bats, attacked a group of foreign and Russian journalists and activists from Kalyapin’s organization, setting their bus on fire. No arrests were made in connection with the attack (see section 1.c.).
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see sections 1.d. and 1.e.).
There were reports that authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).