Russia at the UPR: Repeal oppressive laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association

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11 Apr 2013


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Ahead of the Russian Federation’s second Universal Periodic Review on 29 April 2013 at the United Nations in Geneva, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Russian authorities to repeal legislation suppressing the  rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. This includes legislation on demonstrations, non-commercial organisations, and treason, all adopted in 2012 in reaction to, and in parallel with, a rise in civil society actions and protests criticising the Russian authorities. 

ARTICLE 19 believes the Russian government’s response to these democratic events has been disproportionate and harsh, and calls on the Russian Federation to release those individuals imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to free speech.

 After its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2009, the Russian Federation made commitments to:

  • promote human rights defenders’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association
  • amend its NGO legislation to bring it in line with international human rights standards
  • review the extremism and NGO laws to ensure their compatibility with international human rights obligations and standards including the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
  • revise the Law against Extremism in such a way, that it would clarify the definition of extremism.

However, these reforms have not been initiated and a negative trend has actually been seen instead.

Since Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, this negative trend has become increasingly visible, as particularly highlighted by the wave of regressive legislation initiated and enacted in quick succession in the summer of 2012, and subsequently implemented.

A wave of regressive legislation

  • Law on Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Processions and Pickets adopted on 9 June 2012, which provides for excessive administrative fines of up to RUB 300,000 (USD 9,500). It includes vague terminology, such as ‘mass simultaneous stay or movement’ in an attempt to incorporate new forms of protest, such as flash mobs or mass protest walks.
  • Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in Part Regulating Activities of Non-commercial Organisations, which Carry Functions of Foreign Agents (NGO law), adopted on 21 July 2012. The legislation introduces strict control over any activities by non-commercial organisations considered ‘foreign agents’, including additional audit and reporting requirements. If an organisation fails to comply, its executive manager can be subject to a RUB 300,000 (USD 9,500) fine or up to two years in prison. The overly broad definition of ‘political activities’ as included in the amendments will allow the proposed legislation to be used selectively and arbitrarily.
  • Amendments to the Law on the Protection of Children from Information Detrimental to their Health and Development, adopted in July 2012. These amendments introduce the possibility for “illegal” websites to be blocked without due process and on an arbitrary basis after 72 hours. The decision of the Federal monitoring body can be appealed, but only after the IP address has been blocked. These amendments also allow IP addresses and Internet domains, rather than just individual URLs, to be blocked. This could result in the blacklisting of a large number of websites which have not displayed any “detrimental” information or illegal content according to Russian law.
  • Amendments re-introducing defamation into the Criminal Code, adopted in July 2012. These amendments make defamation a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to RUB 5,000,000 (USD 160,000) or up to five years in prison. They were introduced just six months after defamation had been decriminalised by the former President Medvedev.
  • Law on Treason, and its amendments to the criminal code, adopted in November 2012. On the basis of the law someone could be convicted for holding information even if no secret had been divulged and they could be jailed for up to four years. The new law also penalises those who provide information of other sorts, including financial, technical or advisory, to a foreign state or international organisation ‘directed at harming Russia’s national security’. Given the changes to the NGO law, in particular, the Law on Treason is clearly having a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association. The maximum penalty for high treason is 20 years imprisonment.
  • Amendments to the Criminal Code, on 'protecting of religious feelings of believers,' adopted in first reading on 9 April 2013. This draft legislation proposes prison sentences of up to 3 years including for publicly insulting religious ceremonies and insulting the religious convictions and feelings of citizens. International human rights standards do not protect religions per se, but rather individuals and groups from discrimination and harassment on the basis of their religion or ethnicity. Belief systems themselves should not be exempt from debate, commentary or even sharp criticism, whether internal or external.

A common thread throughout all these pieces of legislation is the speed at which they were proposed, passed through the Russian State Duma and signed into law by President Putin, often within less than a month. The lack of time highlights little interest on the part of the drafters in proper consultation and scrutiny. For example, second and third readings of bills in the State Duma have been held together and there has been almost no opportunity for consultation with civil society or appropriate experts. President Putin has repeatedly ignored recommendations from his own Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which has highlighted serious flaws in the legislation.

Repression in action

In March and April 2013, hundreds of NGOs across Russia have been subjected to surprise ‘inspections’ on the basis of the NGO law, sometimes in conjunction with the anti-extremism law. In the last week alone, well-known and respected Russian NGOs such as Memorial, as well as the local offices of international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been subjected to unannounced inspections by representatives of various government institutions, including the General Prosecutor’s Office.

State-controlled TV-station NTV sometimes joined these inspections, using the footage as background to speculative and biased reports, which portray these organisations as spies – this is the connotation in Russian of the term ‘foreign agent’.

On 10 April, the organisation Golos (Voice) and its executive director, Lilyia Shabanova, were the first to be charged with an administrative offence for not registering as a ‘foreign agent’. According to the Ministry of Justice, Golos had engaged in political activities as part of its work to promote a new Electoral Code. The ministry stated on its website that the organisation had breached the law, as it received foreign funding and aimed to influence decision-making by government institutions and public opinion. The latter was considered a political activity by the ministry. In a response Golos indicated it had not received any foreign grant funding since the law came into force. The organisation had been awarded the Andrey Sakharov Freedom Award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Throughout the past 14 months dozens of people have been targeted in connection with participating in or organising protest actions, and have been subjected to long pre-trial detention periods, lengthy prison sentences, as well as fines or armed searches. These include:

  • On 21 Feburary 2012, members of the feminist collective known as Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a Russian orthodox church in Moscow. They bowed down on the altar before they started singing a song praying to the Virgin Mary to drive Russia’s President Putin away. Cathedral security guards ended the performance 40 seconds after it started. On 17 August 2012, Khamovnichesky District Court in Moscow found Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of the feminist collective Pussy Riot, guilty of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ and sentenced them to two years in a penal colony. A month later Samutsevich was freed on probation, with her sentence suspended.
  • On 4 May 2012, a court in St Petersburg fined prominent Russian LGBT activist Nikolay Alexeyev 5000 roubles for spreading ‘homosexual propaganda’ among miners. It is the first ruling of its kind under legislation banning homosexual ‘propaganda’, which has been adopted in at least 13 regions in the Russian Federation.
  • On 6 May 2012, the eve of Putin’s re-inauguration, Russian opposition leaders organised a ‘March of the Millions’ in Moscow. Around 20,000 people attended the sanctioned protest which was mostly peaceful. However, at one point police clashed violently with protesters in a section led by Left Front leader, Sergei Udaltsov, and anti-corruption activist and blogger, Aleksey Navalny, resulting in mass arrests.
    • Udaltsov and Navalny were arrested and then released but, after participating in further protests on 8 and 9 May, the two were detained again and sentenced to 15 days administrative detention for refusing to obey police orders. 
  • A total of 27 people have been charged in relation to their alleged organization of, or participation in, violent action at the May 6 protests. Fifteen of those charged have been placed in pretrial detention and another 3, including opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov are under house arrest. These include:
    • On 8 June 2012 Mikhail Kosenko was arrested on charges of participation in mass unrest and the use of violence against a government representative. He denies the charges and his family and lawyers fear that because a co-defendant had admitted guilt, this will have a direct influence on the trial against Kosenko. Despite having been recognised in 1999 as having a mental disability, he was repeatedly refused his proscribed medication and Kosenko was only placed in the psychiatric facility of Butyrka detention facility in November 2012.
    • Opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was charged for making a false accusation on 21 March 2013 after he accused an investigator of illegally pressuring him during an interrogation. Razvozzhayev has accused Russia of kidnapping him from Ukraine and torturing him in an effort to force him to confess. Russia accuses Razvozzhayev of being one of the organisers of the violence at the 6 May protests.

Many of the detentions have been extended, including those of:

    • Alexandra Dukhanina, a student at the Moscow State University, has been under house arrest since 29 May 2012 charged with participating in mass unrest. Her house arrest was recently extended until 27 May 2013.
    • Nikolay Kavazky, a lawyer, human rights activist and opposition politician had his pretrial detention extended on 4 March until 6 July 2013. He suffers from a number of serious health problems and has been held in pretrial detention since 25 July 2012.
  •  Ahead of the second ‘March of the Millions’, planned for 12 June 2012, held in both Moscow and St Petersburg, the homes of several opposition figures including Navalny, Udaltsov, as well as activist Ilya Yahsin and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak were subjected to armed searches. The Federal Investigative Committee then summoned these opposition leaders for questioning on 12 June, restricting their involvement in a peaceful rally scheduled for that day.
  • The third ‘March of the Millions’, held in September 2012, was also conducted peacefully but police later detained Udaltsov, who had called on participants to continue protesting after the allotted time period had expired. Both Udaltsov and Navalny were again arrested in December 2012, after another protest in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.
  • Navalny has also been the subject of several seemingly spurious embezzlement and fraud accusations, with the latest trial date set for 17 April 2013 on charges of embezzlement of  16,000,000 RUB (USD 515,000) from a state timber company. The case had been closed in 2012, but was re-opened following the intervention of the head of the investigative committee, Anatoliy Bastrykin. If convicted, Navalny could face a 10-year prison sentence.
  • On 31 December 2012, around 25 people were arrested, including Eduard Limonov, a known writer and opposition leader of the Other Russia movement, after holding an unsanctioned demonstration in Moscow, as part of the Strategy 31 campaign. As the Russian authorities routinely denied permission for protests, the Strategy 31 campaign has held unauthorised protests on the last day of every month with 31 days over the past couple of years, highlighting Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly.

Since 1 November 2012 when the amendments to the law on protecting children came into effect, hundreds of Russian websites have been blacklisted demonstrating its use as a way for the authorities to filter the internet. Amongst those websites that have been targeted have been the online encyclopedia, a digital library, Google’s Blogger service and YouTube. The latter has challenged the inclusion of a video uploaded to the YouTube site on the Russian’ blacklist, filing an appeal with the Russian Courts in February 2013. If it had not complied with the original request to remove the video, YouTube could have had their whole site blocked in Russia.


 ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Russian Federation to:


  • Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina
  • All the activists who were jailed, or who remain in pre-trial detention or under house arrest on politically motivated charges in connection with the May 6 protests, including Mikhail Kosenko, Sergei Udaltsov, Nikolay Kavazky, Leonid Razvozzhayev, Alexandra Dukhanina and Konstantin Lebedev.


  • amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in Part Regulating Activities of Non-commercial Organisations, which Carry Functions of Foreign Agents, July 2012
  • amendments to the Law on the Protection of Children from Information Detrimental to their Health and Development, November 2012
  • amendments re-introducing defamation into the Criminal Code, July 2012
  • Amendments to the Criminal Code, on 'protecting of religious feelings of believers' as adopted in first reading on 9 April 2013.

ARTICLE 19 also calls on the relevant authorities to repeal the ‘homosexual propaganda’ bans which exist in several Russian cities and to refrain from introducing a national level ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’. Such moves severely restrict the freedom of peaceful assembly and association of advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT).

Revise the following legislation to ensure their compatibility with international human rights obligations and standards:

  • the Law on Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Processions and Pickets, July 2012
  • the Law on Treason, and its amendments to the Criminal Code, November 2012
  • the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activities, July 2002 (last amended December 2012) The lack of a clear definition of “extremist act’” remains a concern, along with the wide array of offences, such as “public justification of terrorism”, “mass distribution of knowingly extremist materials”, and “provision of information services to extremists.” In July 2006, an amendment to the Anti-Extremism Law added to the categories of extremist activities ‘defamation of public officials’ (“libellous accusations of extremism against public officials”). Such provisions effectively establish self-censorship as they may hold the media back from reporting on issues of public interest out of fear of being to be labelled as engaging in “extremism”.  

 The full text of ARTICLE 19’s submission to the UN UPR on the Russian Federation, including a list of recommendations, can be found online