The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The Russian Federation is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right 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, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Russia is also a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Russia is a state party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Article 31 of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation (as amended) guarantees to Russian citizens the right to freedom of peaceful assembly:
Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, mass meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets.
The primary legislation governing assemblies in Russia is the 2004 Federal Law on Rallies Meetings and Demonstrations (as amended through 2018).
Organizers of a public assembly must notify the government (an executive body of the territorial subdivision of the Russian Federation or a local self-governance body) at least ten days in advance. The notification must contain the organizers’ full names, addresses and phone numbers; those persons authorised by the organiser to perform regulatory functions while holding the public event; the goal and form, date, start and finish times, and the route of movement (including information about vehicles); the projected number of participants; the methods planned for ensuring public peace; the need for medical assistance; and whether or not loudspeakers will be used.
Amendments in 2012 laid down increased fines for violating the rules on gatherings, provided that no gathering can continue past 10pm, and established "specialised locations" in which assemblies should take place, often far from the centre of urban areas. Outside of those areas, demonstrators must seek permission to gather.
Federal Law No. 367-FZ of 11 October 2018 on Amendments to Articles 5 and 10 of the Federal Law on Meetings, Rallies, Processions and Pickets entered into force on 22 October 2018. According to the new law, the organiser of a public event is obligated to inform citizens and provide a written notification to the government about the cancellation of a public event no later than one day prior to its scheduled date. This requirement may be difficult to fulfill, as there are many instances when organisers of public events are forced to cancel an event due to last minute disruptions not dependent on the organisers, such as denial of premises rental an hour before the meeting.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The 2011 Police Law governs policing and law enforcement in the Russian Federation. Chapter V of the law governs police use of force. Article 18(9) states that a police officer is not responsible for harm caused when employing physical force as long as this force was carried out according to Russian law.
Article 19 requires a police officer to inform the individual to be subjected to force that s/he is a police officer, warn the individual of their intent to use physical force, and provide them with an opportunity and the time to comply with the officer’s demands. The same provision requires all use of force to be proportionate but allows police to use force without warning should a threat to life or limb be imminent.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Firearms may be used to prevent an imminent threat to life, to release hostages, to detain an individual caught in the commission of a crime, and to prevent escape from prison.
This is more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2015 Concluding observations on Russia, the Human Rights Committee addressed the right of peaceful assembly at length. The Committee expressed its concern
about consistent reports of arbitrary restrictions on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, including violent and unjustified dispersal of protesters by law enforcement officers, arbitrary detentions and imposition of harsh fines and prison sentences for the expression of political views.
The Committee noted with particular concern
the charges of violence against law enforcement officers and mass unrest brought against demonstrators on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on 6 May 2012 resulting in prison sentences of up to four and a half years and lengthy pretrial detention exceeding, in some cases, a year, as well as the detention of some 1,300 protesters during spontaneous gatherings following the announcement of the verdict in the Bolotnaya Square case in February 2014.
The Committee was further concerned
about the strong deterrent effect on the right to peaceful assembly of the new restrictions introduced in the amended federal law No. 65FZ (Assemblies Act) of 8 June 2012, which imposes high administrative sanctions on organizers of assemblies who were previously convicted of similar administrative offences. Similarly, it is concerned about the additional set of restrictions introduced in July 2014, further increasing the fines for violating rules on holding public events, introducing administrative custodial sentences for participation in an unauthorized public gathering and making repeated violations a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million roubles.
It called on Russia to "take all the measures necessary to ensure that individuals fully enjoy their rights under article 21 of the Covenant in practice", among others by:
(a) Abstaining from any unjustified interference with the exercise of this right and ensuring that any restrictions imposed are in compliance with the strict requirements of article 21 of the Covenant and not subordinate to political considerations;
(b) Promptly investigating all cases of violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful protesters and punishing those responsible;
(c) Revising those laws, regulations and practices affecting the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, including those imposing heavy sanctions on individuals exercising such right, with a view to bringing them in line with the Covenant.
Navalnyy v. Russia (2018)
The case concerned the repeated arrest and prosecution for administrative offences of a political activist during public assemblies. In its judgment, the Grand Chamber found that a common feature of the events in the case was that
none of them entailed, if at all ..., disruption to ordinary life going beyond a level of minor disturbance. As the Court has stressed on many occasions, an unlawful situation, such as the staging of a demonstration without prior authorisation, does not necessarily justify an interference with a person’s right to freedom of assembly. In particular, where irregular demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence the Court has required that the public authorities show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the [European] Convention is not to be deprived of all substance.... In this regard the present case can hardly be distinguished from previous cases in which the Court has found that such tolerance should extend to instances where the demonstration has been held at a public place in the absence of any risk of insecurity or disturbance ... or without danger to public order beyond the level of minor disturbance ... or has caused a certain level of disruption to ordinary life, including to traffic.
In holding a violation of Article 11 by Russia, the Court stressed
that the applicant’s arrests, detention and ensuing administrative convictions could not have failed to have the effect of discouraging him and others from participating in protest rallies or indeed from engaging actively in opposition politics. Undoubtedly, those measures also had a serious potential to deter other opposition supporters and the public at large from attending demonstrations and, more generally, from participating in open political debate. Their chilling effect was further amplified by the fact that they targeted a well-known public figure, whose deprivation of liberty was bound to attract wide media coverage.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Russia:
The government restricts freedom of assembly. Overwhelming police responses, the use of force, routine arrests, and harsh fines and prison sentences have discouraged unsanctioned protests, while pro-Kremlin groups are able to demonstrate freely. Despite the risks, thousands of people have turned out for a series of antigovernment demonstrations in recent years. In September 2018, police arbitrarily detained hundreds of people who came to the streets to protest the government’s pension legislation.