A wave of protest actions across Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan
This last weekend, 25. – 26. March, peaceful protest actions took place across Russia, Belarus and in Kyrgyzstan, which were met with heavy police forces, mass arrests and violence from the authorities. Although they did not seem to have been coordinated in any way, the protests have in common that they were supported by citizens fed up with corruption and oppression. Governments of the three countries seem to know only one way of reacting: Interdiction, violence and detentions. Still, citizens for the first time in a very long time, defied fears and participated. The participation across Russia, not limited to big cities, had not been seen for years.
(photo via Facebook)
March in Russia
Alexey Navalny, the Russian blogger, opposition politician and the head of the Anti-corruption Fund (FBK) followed up on his promises on 26 March and mobilised protesters all over the country. Citizens of 100 cities, from Vladivostok in the Far East to Murmansk in North-Western Russia, went out to the streets in protest against the rampant corruption in Russia. Approximately 30 000 protesters participated, and hundreds of them were detained . In Moscow alone, 1080 persons were arrested, twice as many as those arrested during and after the famous protests on Sakharova and Bolotnaya squares in Moscow in 2011- 2012. As many as 190 have been charged with various crimes so far, awaiting trials. There are also numerous reports of aggressive and unnecessary violent behavior by law-enforcement bodies. Alexei Navalny has been jailed for 15 days for resisting police orders during the mass protests on Sunday.
A pretext for the protest actions has been FBKs film, which reveals Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedevs hidden access to enormous wealth and long-term rent-seeking behavior. The film has been watched by several millions since its recent publication according to Navalny, and 14 million people followed the streaming of last Sunday’s protest actions via Navalny’s TV channel on Toutube.
In many cities the citizens have been accused of participating in illegal protests, but this has been dismissed by Russian legal experts. Instead the organisers, led by Navalny, did what they were supposed to do and duly notified the authorities. - By denying the right to demonstrate, Russian authorities in many Russian towns violated the Russian Constitution which guarantees such the right to demonstrate, underlines Pavel Chikov, the member of the Human Rights Council under the president of the Russian Federation and the head of Interregional Agora. The police also violated Russian laws and even behaved brutally during the crackdown against the protesters. The courts violated the legislative, by accepting the mass arrests of demonstrators and issuing fines in an indiscriminate way”, concluded Chikov . The freedom of assembly is also guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
-These protest actions have shown that Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign and the slogans “don’t lie and don’t steal” have struck a chord in society, especially its younger generation. The younger generation did not grow up during the Soviet union, and do not watch Russian state TV, they are instead active on social media, and have in this sense not been “damaged” by propaganda, NHCs Senior Advisor Inna Sangadzhieva says. -The protests have also shown the contrast between the conservative, rigid, and authoritarian power of the Russian authorities, and the fearless, modest, modern, and young generation. Navalny has put “corruption” on the agenda of the pre- election period ahead of the Presidential elections in 2018, and he seems to have become a politician of a national format, she continues.
Again, Russian civil society groups have been prepared to provide legal aid and in informating about rights. Along with the FBK they coordinate and collect information on arrest and criminal prosecutions all over Russia.
In the afternoon of 25 March 2017, people took to the streets in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for planned peaceful protests on the occasion of the Day of Freedom, which commemorates the Belarusian declaration of independence in 1918. There was as a heavy police and security presence in the city, the downtown area where protests were due to be held was cordoned off, and traffic was blocked on the main Independence Avenue. Local and international human rights monitors documented the use of heavy-handed tactics by the law enforcement and security authorities to prevent the peaceful protests, for which authorities had not given advance permission as required by Belarusian law and in violation of international standards.
At least 700 people were detained on 25 March, including elderly and passers-by. As can be seen on available photos and footage, police forcefully rounded up and beat protesters with batons, although these made no resistance. More than 30 journalists and photographers from both Belarusian and international media outlets were detained; cameras and other equipment of some of them were damaged by police. Toward the evening, police started releasing detainees from the detention facilities, in many cases without charge. However, others remain in detention, and dozens of individuals are expected to stand trial on charges relating to their participation in the peaceful protests.
Also on 25 March, about an hour before the start of the planned peaceful protest, anti-riot police raided the offices of the Human Rights Center Viasna and detained a total of 57 Belarusian and foreign human rights defenders and volunteers as well as journalists. The police shouted at all present, intimidated them, and ordered to lie down on the floor face down. 57 people were detained without any charges, packed in the buses and brought to the Pervomaisky district police station, where their belongings were searched and their personal information recorded. The detainees were held there for two and a half hours and were released afterwards without charges. One of the detained needed medical treatment because of injuries sustained when being beaten by police. The raid of the offices of Viasna and the detention of the monitors were clearly aimed at intimidating and preventing them from observing the peaceful assembly and documenting possible violations.
The crackdown continued on 26 March, with dozens of people being detained by police as they gathered at October Square in Minsk at noon to express solidarity with those detained the day before. Among the detained on 26 March were at least one human rights defender, one civil society activist and one journalist. Representatives of national and international human rights NGOs, including members of the CSP, continue to document violations perpetrated in connection with the events of the last few days.
The detentions on 25-26 March followed the earlier detention of about 300 people, including opposition members, journalists and human rights defenders in the last few weeks. These detentions have taken place against the background of a wave of peaceful demonstrations that were carried out across Belarus since mid-February 2017 to protest against so-called “social parasites” law which imposes a special tax on those who have worked for less than six months during the year without registering as unemployed. The legislation, which has affected hundreds of thousands of people in the economically struggling country, has caused widespread dismay. On 9 March, President Lukashenko suspended the implementation of the law but refused to withdraw it, resulting in further protests. Many of those detained have been fined or arrested for up to 15 days on administrative charges related to their participation in the peaceful protests. Over two dozen people are facing criminal charges on trumped-up charges of preparation to mass riots.
NHC has protested the crackdown and challenged the international community to take appropriate action, together with the Civic Solidarity Platform. The statement can be read here.
Demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan
Also in Kyrgyzstan, demonstrations have been taking place over the past weeks, with several detained and unfortunately, with a violent outcome.
Following increasingly hostile statements and actions directed at opposition and media, social activist Edil Baisalov called for a "Freedom March" in Bishkek on March 18, protesting law suits against RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service (Azzatyk), local news outlets 24.kg and Zanoza as well as human rights activist Rita Karasartova.
Activists consider that the government, which came to power following the April 2010 revolution, has been looking for an excuse to launch a crackdown on media and civil society in the country.
Opposition figure Omurbek Tekebaev was jailed upon his return from Vienna on 26 February. False claims made by Tekebaev's lawyers at a Bishkek press conference, claiming that the President's family owned cargo aboard a Turkish Airlines flight that crashed into housing near Bishkek Manas Airport on 16 January, killing the crew and 35 people residing in the village, gave authorities the incentive to strike broadly at media and civil society.
While news outlets merely reported the claims made by Tekebayev's lawyers, the President has repeatedly attacked the media for illegal slander. The 18 March protest were devoted to political freedoms and freedom of speech, and also raised the issue of attacks on lawyers, including the confiscation of the apartment of one of Tekebaev's lawyers by authorities.
This is not the first time Atambayev lashes out at media and civil society - in 2016, he made public denounciations of human rights activists Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdirasulova, as well as previous members of the Kyrgyz Interim Government, including Roza Otunbayeva.
The Freedom March in Bishkek on 18 March resulted in 5 arrests as police and demonstrators disagreed about the route permitted for the protest. Reactions from the police were widely seen as excessive, including by the protest organizer Edil Baisalov.
This weekend, protests unrelated to the March 18 Freedom March took place in Bishkek, ending in violent clashes between police and demonstrators and the arrest of at least 68 people.
The protests were in support of opposition politician Sadyr Japarov of the Ata-Jurt party, who was arrested by security services upon his return to Bishkek from Almaty. Japarov had spent the past four years in neighboring Kazakhstan, due to a criminal case opened against him following disturbances in the Issyk-Kul region in 2013. Japarov's followers gathered outside the building of the security services in Bishkek to demand his release. In clashes with police, several demonstrators were beaten, evidenced by videos posted online the same day.
Kyrgyzstan is preparing for presidential elections in November, and several international organizations, including the NHC, have expressed concern at a visible crackdown on media and civil society in recent months.