The Russian authorities should remedy the long-standing problem of undue restrictions to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and press freedom

“The detention of 19 people, including journalists, in Moscow and Pskov on Friday and the verdict against journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva today reflect once again the urgency to overhaul legislation governing freedom of assembly and of expression, as well as anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation in the Russian Federation”, said today Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

“As on previous occasions, the demonstrators were peacefully contesting decisions taken by the Russian authorities. In this case, they were expressing their support to Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance journalist who has today been fined 500.000 Rubles (about 6.000 euros) on charges that defy credibility. Those charges were brought against her after she reflected on the reasons that had led a teenager to detonate a bomb in a Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Arkhangelsk in October 2017, killing himself and injuring several FSB officers.

Both the detentions carried out on Friday and the verdict against Ms Prokopyeva - like other similar cases of prosecution for expressing legitimate criticism of the authorities - illustrate the flaws of the laws which govern freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in the Russian Federation.

The Russian legal framework governing public events and the frequent arrests - sometimes with the use of excessive police force - have been consistently found in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. They have also drawn criticism by international organisations as well as by Russian national human rights structures, the high judicial bodies of the Russian Federation, civil society and human rights groups.

As concerns press freedom, the misuse of “anti-terrorism” and “anti-extremism” legislation and practice limits legitimate reporting or criticism of state authorities. This situation is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights to which the Russian Federation is bound, has a chilling effect on all media professionals, and prevents citizens from receiving information of public interest.

To fully remedy the long-standing problem of undue restrictions to freedom of expression, including press freedom, as well as the misconduct of law enforcement officials and the lack of accountability for state agents violating human rights, the authorities of the Russian Federation must take a broad range of urgent political, legislative and judicial measures.

To this end, the authorities should drop all ongoing criminal proceedings against journalists, human rights defenders and individuals targeted for having exercised their rights to freedom of assembly, expression and press freedom.

Lawmakers should change the law and practice on public events in order to exclude the possibility to arrest and charge individuals who participate in peaceful public gatherings, collective or individual; to include an explicit provision in favour of holding public events; and to put in place adequate mechanisms, procedures and remedies to ensure that freedom of assembly is enjoyed in practice and not subject to undue bureaucratic regulation. The amended law should also include specific provisions to allow spontaneous and simultaneous assemblies, as well as an effective procedure for solving any disagreements between the organisers of public events and the authorities.

An improvement of the anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation and practice is also needed in order to distinguish criticism and dissent from terrorist action, and shield journalists from prosecution when they carry out their work.

Another pressing measure is to tackle a judicial and police culture that consistently undermines freedom of expression and media freedom. The practice of using criminal procedures and of arresting peaceful demonstrators, journalists and human rights defenders to punish and discourage the exercise of legitimate and peaceful dissent should end. Law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors and legal professionals should apply international and European human rights standards to ensure the effective exercise of the right to freedom of assembly in practice. A safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and journalists should also be established for them to carry out their legitimate activities.

It cannot be overstated that press freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly constitute one of the foundations of a democratic society and a key factor for its development and resilience. It is high time that the Russian authorities show more commitment to human rights and align both legislation and practice governing public events and anti-terrorism with international and European human rights standards.”