Mass Arrests of Demonstrators, Activists; Police Brutality
(Moscow) -- Police arbitrarily detained hundreds of peaceful protesters across Russia on February 24, 2022, at rallies in solidarity with Ukraine and against the war, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities also arrested at least two human rights defenders who spoke up against Russia's full-scale invasion in Ukraine, threatened to block mass media outlets in case their reporting on the war differed from the official narrative, and demanded that foreign social media platforms stop restricting reports from Russian state media.
In the early morning of February 24, President Vladimir Putin announced military operations against Ukraine in a public address to the nation, and soon after the broadcast of his speech, Russian armed forces began air and ground attacks on multiple military installations across Ukraine. As hostilities have continued there have been credible reports of use of cluster munitions by Russian forces causing civilian fatalities and injuries, and damage to civilian objects such as schools and hospitals.
"For years, Russian authorities have been suppressing free speech and peaceful protests to stifle critical voices," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now the government is silencing all those who speak out against the war with Ukraine."
According to OVD-Info, an independent human rights project working to protect freedom of assembly in Russia, by the evening of February 25, police had detained at least 1,858 people for participation in anti-war protests in 57 cities, including Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Krasnodar, Ekaterinburg, Saratov, Nizhny Novgorod, and Voronezh. Some of detained protesters stood in single pickets and held posters saying "no to war, do not be silent," "stop the war," and other similar slogans.
At around 3 p.m. on February 24, the police detained Marina Litvinovich, a human rights activist, in Moscow after she had made a call over social media to "come out and say we are against war." She was released several hours later, pending a court hearing and the next day was fined for violating the rules on public gatherings.
In response to calls for peaceful protests, Russia's Investigative Committee published a news release with a warning that organizing unsanctioned gatherings is a prosecutable offense and threatening "harsh punishment" for organization of "mass riots."
In the evening of February 24, protesters gathered in different cities across Russia to demonstrate against war. According to OVD-Info, more than 1,000 protesters were arbitrarily detained in Moscow and around 400 in Saint Petersburg where the biggest protests took place.
Human Rights Watch analyzed and verified 27 videos recorded north of the Gostinny Dvor metro station in Saint Petersburg and close to Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow that were published on social media on February 24. The vast majority document brutal arrests of peaceful activists by police officers. In at least four cases, videos show police officers beating protestors, pushing them to the ground, dragging them, grabbing them by the head, and choking them.
Mass media and OVD-Info also reported other cases of excessive use of force by the police, refusal of medical assistance, and denial of access to lawyers.
At night, at least six police stations in Moscow, and some stations in Saint Petersburg, Saratov, Voronezh and Ekaterinburg refused access to outside visitors after initiating the "Fortress" protocol, authorized for a situation of potential attack, which meant lawyers were denied access to their clients for hours. On February 25, OVD-info reported they could not get in touch with three of the detainees on their list.
Russian public figures, journalists, scientists, activists, and average social media users have been publicly expressing their shock and indignation at the full scale Russian military operations in Ukraine and calling for the hostilities to end. Thousands used the hashtag #нетвойне (#notowar).
Lev Ponomarev, a prominent human rights defender and the founder of the Movement for Human Rights, initiated a petition "against war," calling on the Russian military to withdraw from Ukraine and inviting people to join the peaceful anti-war movement. The police detained Ponomarev on February 24 and charged him with organizing unsanctioned protests in connection with the petition, which had gathered over 550,000 signatures by the evening of February 25.
On February 24, the internet regulator Roskomnadzor published a warning to mass media disseminating "unverified" and "false" information, claiming that only information from official sources can be used when reporting on the "special operation" in Ukraine. The authorities also said that all "false" information would be instantly blocked and warned about fines for disseminating "fake" news.
Roskomnadzor also sent official letters to Facebook (Meta) demanding that it should lift restrictions imposed by the social media platform on official pages of state and government mass media. The authorities said that Facebook had marked them as "untrustworthy" and hid their publications from the platform's search. Roskomnadzor also called on Russian users to switch to national internet resources and social networks due to "unfounded blockings by foreign platforms."
On February 25, the Office of the Prosecutor General, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused Facebook of being "involved in violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms" and imposed restrictions on access to the platform in Russia.
Pickets and arbitrary arrests continued on February 25.
The authorities' actions to prevent people from participating in peaceful public protests and freely expressing their opinions violate fundamental rights, including those to freedom of expression and assembly and the prohibition on arbitrary detention, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Russia's own Constitution.
"The ability to express disagreement in a peaceful way is crucially important in any society that respects human rights and rule of law," Williamson said. "This abusive crackdown on a peaceful anti-war movement is yet further proof, if more was needed, of the government's intolerance of independent voices."
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