A small oppositional rally in defense of the constitutional right to gather on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main street, lasted for just 14 seconds before the police took the two protesters, who were standing still holding posters, put them into a police van and took them to a police precinct.
It was the third Sunday in a row that activists of the United Civil Front (OGF) and Yabloko Democratic Party had attempted to hold a protest, which the authorities have repeatedly refused to authorize, referring to the fact that metro stations and adjacent territories require “special security measures,” as well as to the “high density and intensity of passenger traffic” in the area.
But activists claim the practice of banning protests is unlawful, and that the policemen who stop such events are responsible for preventing a public event — a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under the Russian criminal code. Activists complain that the police indiscriminately detain protesters, who on Sunday were met by a dozen policemen, including a cameraman and two police vehicles, as soon as they raise their posters.
On Sunday, Polina Strongina of Youth Yabloko and Denis Vasilyev of OGF raised posters with quotes from the Russian Constitution (“Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State”) and the Law on the Police (“The activities of the police are built in compliance with the principles of respect of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen, lawfulness, humanism and openness”) only to be detained moments later.
The protesters, who were released three hours later, say the bans on the rallies and their detentions are “unlawful.”
“Federal Law 54 on rallies and gatherings demands organizers to notify [the authorities],” Vasilyev said by phone on Monday.
“They have the right to suggest an alternative route, but only in the event that they have grounds to do so — for instance, if we want to gather at a construction site under an operating crane, or if there’s an emergency situation. But their explanations are all far fetched.”
Vasilyev said City Hall is wrong in thinking that if it doesn’t authorize an event, it cannot be held.
The main law in Russia, he said, is the constitution, which states that “The rights and freedoms of man and citizen may be limited by the federal law only to such an extent to which it is necessary for the protection of the fundamental principles of the constitutional system, morality, health, the rights and lawful interests of other people, for ensuring defense of the country and security of the state.”
“Our rally doesn’t threaten the security of the state — and until it is proved otherwise, our rights cannot be curtailed,” Vasilyev said.
Although the two activists detained on Sunday were treated “fairly properly,” according to Vasilyev, he said that he and Yabloko’s Arseny Gundarev were beaten by the police on April 5.
“We were detained by the OMON [special-task police force] that time, and Arseny Gundarev was beaten a bit in the bus, while I was beaten at the police precinct,” he said.
According to Vasilyev, he and Gundarev were repeatedly insulted by the police in the police bus, while Gundarev was hit several times in the stomach. Later at a police precinct, Vasilyev was taken by two policemen into a room with a sign reading “Duty Investigator” on the door, where he was also hit several times in the stomach and had his sweater torn for refusing to remove either his shoe laces or his shoes.
He said the protests would be continued in the near future.
On Sunday, five minutes after the protesters were taken away to the police precinct, about 50 Hare Krishnas walked in a formation down Nevsky Prospekt to a site in front of Gostiny Dvor, near to that of the thwarted rally, where they danced and chanted using an amplifier for 12 minutes. One police officer was present on the scene and said that the Hare Krishna event was authorized.
Alexander Vashurin, an officer of the St. Petersburg Government’s Law, Public Order and Security Committee, declined to comment when contacted on Monday. Another officer from the committee who did not identify himself suggested that the Hare Krishna event was perhaps authorized by the local district authorities, rather than City Hall.