Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev at an All-Russian convention on the protection of human rights.
© 2017 Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images
(Moscow) – A Russian court has unjustly jailed one of the founders of Russia’s human rights movement for a Facebook post about a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 5, 2018, a court in Moscow sentenced Lev Ponomarev, 77, to 25 days in jail for alleged repeated violations of public assembly rules. Ponomarev should be freed immediately.
“Ponomarev’s jailing shows that in today’s Russia, nothing is off limits for the authorities, not free speech, nor peaceful assembly, nor high-profile human rights defenders, ” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “And perhaps this is precisely the message the Russian authorities hope to send.”
Ponomarev is the leader of For Human Rights, an independent human rights group. On October 28, he described, on his blog and Facebook page the Moscow city authorities’ refusal to permit a peaceful protest in the city center. He documented the organizers’ attempts to obtain permission and explained why the ban violated human rights norms. Ponomarev wrote that he would go to the protest site that day but stated explicitly that he was not encouraging anyone else to go and emphasized that each person had to decide for themselves whether to attend.
Later that day, several hundred people decided to peacefully assemble in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, and police detained dozens of them. Ponomarev was not among them. However, on December 1 police arrested him at his home and took him to a police station, citing repeated violations of the rules on public assemblies. On December 3, the Tverskoy District Court sentenced him to 25 days for incitement to participate in an unauthorized protest. Since he had been fined in July for a peaceful, single-person protest, it was considered a repeat violation. He appealed the verdict on December 6.
Russia’s public assembly laws violate the right to freedom of assembly by setting out excessively harsh penalties for unauthorized, yet peaceful gatherings, Human Rights Watch said.
Despite this, in recent years Russians have taken to the streets to protest government actions ranging from corruption to pension reform. In the first week of December alone, numerous demonstrations took place across Russia against war, pollution, school closures, and inadequate pay for caregivers for people with disabilities.
The court ruling came several days after a high profile judgement by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which found the Russian authorities in violation of the right to freedom of assembly. The court condemned the Russian authorities’ practice of banning peaceful protests on dubious grounds and subsequently arresting organizers and participants, including when organizers had made a good faith effort to engage with the authorities about the site. The court also explicitly recognized that these practices could be politically motivated.
In media interviews, Ponomarev’s supporters suggested that Ponomarev’s arrest was politically motivated, with some noting that he was listed among the organizers of a protest against war and the abuse of power by law enforcement and national security forces planned for December 16. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, one of Ponomarev’s colleagues suggested the authorities would use Ponomarev’s arrest as a pretext to ban the rally, leaving the protesters with the choice of either curbing their right to free expression and assembly or to go ahead with the protest and face the risk of police violence as well as fines and detention.
On December 6, Members of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent body of experts authorized by the government to monitor detention sites, visited Ponomarev in custody. He told them the beds in his cell were broken, preventing him from sleeping or lying on them. The commission members also observed that the cell was overcrowded, and people facing administrative charges were kept together with those accused of criminal offenses, and non-smokers had to share cells with smokers.
In 2012, the ECtHR noted that “inadequate” conditions in detention was a recurrent structural problem in Russia, that it had delivered dozens of judgments finding violations of the prohibition on inhuman and degrading conditions as a result, and that it had hundreds more pending that raised the same issue. The court noted that the problem was widespread as a result of the malfunctioning of the Russian penitentiary system and insufficient legal safeguards.
“Russian authorities are tightening their grip on dissent and peaceful protest, but the past has shown that this won’t stop people from making their voices heard,” Denber said.