Support Russian Activists Calling for their Constitutional Rights

 

Human rights defenders and opposition political activists have formed a coalition in Russia to defend basic political rights that have been under attack for years. The Strategy 31 protests are organized on the 31st day of every month that has 31 days, with the next one scheduled to take place on March 31st. They take their name from Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which upholds freedom of peaceful assembly.

By trying to convene peaceful political assemblies in cities throughout Russia while routinely facing obstruction from the authorities, the protesters hope to demonstrate the extent to which basic political freedoms, in this case the right to peaceful assembly, are denied in practice. Previous attempts to convene such rallies have been broken up by police with hundreds of participants, including leading political and human rights figures, taken into detention.

TAKE ACTION NOW to urge Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to grant peaceful protesters the rights guaranteed to them by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution and by binding international human rights treaties.

Alert Date: 3/22/2010


President Dmitri Medvedev
c/o Russian Embassy in Washington DC
2641 Tunlaw Road NW,
Washington, DC 20007

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to express my concern over the repeated denial of the basic right to peaceful assembly to people in Russia. The denial of this right, upheld in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution and in international human rights treaties binding on Russia, has been demonstrated by a series of protests in recent months that have been broken up and obstructed by the authorities, including by the deployment of heavily-armed riot police against peaceful demonstrators.

These protests are arranged to take place on the thirty-first day of every month in which there are thirty-one days, thus the next one is scheduled for March 31st in cities throughout Russia. By choosing this day, the protesters are calling attention to the denial of their right provided under Article 31 of the Constitution. The protests that have become known as Strategy 31 are led by opposition political figures and by leading human rights activists. Several of these leaders, including the 82-year-old founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, have been detained together with hundreds of other participants and by-standers.

I urge you to instruct law enforcement agencies in Russia not to disrupt or obstruct any peaceful protests convened on March 31st designed to support political rights provided for in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In particular, I seek assurances that no one will be detained or mistreated by police officers for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I will continue to closely monitor this situation.
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Background Information:

On March 31, 2010, hundreds of protesters are expected to gather in Moscow and other Russian cities to exercise their right to freedom of assembly which, though guaranteed under Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, is often denied in practice to those critical of the current Russian government. The protests began in Moscow on July 31, 2009 and have spread to other cities, resulting in the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters including prominent political leaders Eduard Limonov (leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and co-founder of The Other Russia), Boris Nemtsov (former Prime Minister and co-founder of Solidarnost) and Garry Kasparov (co-founder of The Other Russia), as well as leading human rights activists like Lyudmila Alexeyeva (founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group), Oleg Orlov (chair of Memorial) and others.

The demonstrations are organized by a coalition of democratic opposition movements under the name of Strategy 31. In accordance with the law, Strategy 31 has applied to state authorities for permits to assemble before each demonstration. The Russian authorities have routinely denied permits for the requested times and locations, claiming that other activities had already been scheduled. Organizers claim that federal authorities are doing whatever they can to block the demonstrations.

Asserting the right to “gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets” has united political parties and individuals with a broad range of political views in defense of this fundamental political right. The mistreatment and detention of protesters by heavily armed riot police has generated concern and condemnation from the international community.

The number of protesters—and members of the security forces deployed to contain them—has increased at each rally. On January 31, several hundred protesters gathered at Triumfalnaya Square in downtown Moscow. The police arrived early in the morning with instructions to create a tight ring around the area. They installed metal gates to keep protesters out and surrounded the square with two dozen buses and trucks. Protesters said that it was virtually impossible to move. As many as one hundred protesters and by-standers were detained. Numerous activists were injured as they were dragged into buses by police in riot gear. This was the first rally attended by Boris Nemtsov who put ideological differences aside after seeing photos of Lyudmila Alexeyeva seized by OMON (counter-terrorism police) officers and dragged onto a bus at the December 31 rally. Alexeyeva was arrested again on January 31, as were Oleg Orlov, Lev Ponomarev (executive director of For Human Rights), Nemtsov and Limonov.

Rallies were held simultaneously in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Murmansk, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk and St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg as many as 200 protesters attended. Forty-one were detained, including Andrei Dmitriyev, leader of the St. Petersburg NBP. He was charged with participation in an unsanctioned rally. Some of the demonstrators were beaten with truncheons and dragged into police buses. Dmitriyev said, “It’s an ongoing campaign, and we will come again and again until we win the right to assemble and speak freely in our own city without being detained by the OMON and police”.

A day after the demonstrations, a member of the OMON riot police published a letter to President Medvedev complaining that his battalion commander had ordered each officer to arrest no less than three demonstrators or lose bonuses and awards.

The New Year’s Eve demonstration in Moscow was attended by several hundred demonstrators as well. Many wore badges inscribed with “Article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation,” including Alexeyeva, doyenne of the human rights movement, who was dressed as a snow maiden. She said, “the crush was terrible, because they (the police) had surrounded the whole Square, leaving a very narrow space.” Police started taking people away almost immediately and loaded them into the many buses that were available. Alexeyeva, arrested with 50 others protesters, declared that: “What happened on Triumphal Square today was really a disgrace for the city authorities and for the federal authorities… We’ll continue to fight for our own constitutional right to peaceful rallies, marches and demonstrations until the authorities recognize this right, not only on paper, but in reality.” Oleg Orlov was detained on the grounds that he was taking part in an unauthorized rally and shouting “Freedom!” and “Long Live Article 31 of the Constitution.” He said the police “seized people out of the crowd – those who held up placards, those who were shouting, or simply those they didn’t like the look of for some reason or other.”

At the October 31 rally in Moscow, in which more than fifty participants were arrested, Orlov said, “in order not to provoke arrests, organizers called participants not to bring any flags or banners or chant slogans.” He suggests that in order to find a “pretext” to make arrests, “members of Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia), a Kremlin-aligned youth group, were used as provocateurs.” They brought flares, chanted slogans and distributed leaflets. They were arrested, but released without being charged. Limonov was charged for “disobeying police orders” and faced detention. Policeman and soldiers beat protesters as they were dragged into police vans.

As well as being a protected right in the Russian Constitution, freedom of assembly is also upheld by binding international human rights treaties of which the Russian Federation is a State Party. Article 11(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly…” Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: “The rights of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety…”