13 June 2012

Thousands call for Putin's resignation amid raids, free assembly crackdown

Masked security officials carried boxes from the home of opposition activist Alexei Navalny on 11 June 2012
Masked security officials carried boxes from the home of opposition activist Alexei Navalny on 11 June 2012
REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresenskiy

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Thousands of Russian anti-government protesters risked hefty fines and took part in a major rally in Moscow yesterday calling for President Vladimir Putin's resignation and for new elections to be held.

The protest came after police raided the homes of several prominent activists and after Putin approved legislation increasing fines for those who violate protest laws, report IFEX members.

Putin won a third presidential term in March amid protests over alleged fraud in December's parliamentary vote. The "March of Millions" this week was the first big anti-government rally in Russia since Putin's re-election.

The fines under the new law are substantial: 300,000 Rubles (about US$9,000) - up from 1,000 Rubles (US$60) for anyone participating in an unsanctioned rally, and 1 million Rubles for institutions.

The problem, say ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch, is that many of the charges are vague. It's not known, for example, if walking on the grass or littering would lead to excessive fines under the new law, which makes gatherings of people in one place who cause damage to city property an offence.

Human Rights Watch says the new law "seriously undermines free assembly in Russia."

Plus, the changes were rushed through, despite nearly unanimous condemnation from all sectors of civil society.

"President Putin has not followed the recommendations of his own Council for Human Rights and has hastily signed this law into force, turning the screws on those wanting to peacefully express their discontent or opposition," says ARTICLE 19.

Freedom House fears the law "will have a chilling effect on citizen participation in important public policy debates and Russia's democratic processes."

Shortly before the rally, independent media websites, such as Ekho Moskvy radio, went down, reports the International Press Institute (IPI). News agencies reported difficulty reaching the websites of Rain TV and the "Novaya Gazeta" newspaper.

But the websites of Kremlin-allied newspapers and state-controlled television stations remained accessible all day, reports IPI, noting the web attacks "appear to be a direct violation of the right of Russia's people to be informed."

Those targeted by police raids on Monday included blogger Alexei Navalny and other leading opposition activists, Ilya Yashin and Sergei Udaltsov, report ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch.

The police said they were searching for evidence linking opposition leaders with riots in Moscow in May, on the eve of Putin's inauguration, says ARTICLE 19. Back then, hundreds were arrested. Russia's Investigative Committee said police "intend to conduct 10 searches in all" on 11 June, say news reports.

Navalny described the police raid as "awesome" in a message on Twitter, saying "they almost carved up the door (this is actually true)."

According to the BBC, he said police removed computer disks containing photos of his children, along with clothes, including a sweatshirt with an opposition slogan.

Police also searched the home of Kseniya Sobchak - a well-known TV presenter and daughter of Putin's late mentor and St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, reports ARTICLE 19. Sobchak joined the protest movement after the allegedly rigged parliamentary elections in December 2010.

"People barged in at 8am, gave me no chance to get dressed, robbed the apartment, humiliated me," Sobchak said in a Twitter post. "I never thought we would return to such repression in this country."

The searches also triggered a wave of protest from Russian bloggers, who compared the actions to those of Stalin's secret police in the 1930s. According to the BBC, "Hello 1937" was the top Russian-language Twitter trend throughout the day on 11 June.

Federal investigators summoned the opposition leaders to appear for questioning just one hour before the scheduled start of the rally.

Opposition leaders believe the searches and new law, designed to stop them personally from participating in the protest, will actually have the opposite effect - they will galvanise supporters to join the anti-Putin cause.

"It's obvious they are as frightened of us as they are of fire," opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told the rally, reports the BBC. "They are scared of the people's protest."

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says Putin's regime has also contributed to censorship and repression internationally.

Protesting during the Russian President's recent visit to France, RSF said, "On the pretext of combating terrorism or promoting 'traditional values,' Russia plays a leading role in efforts to suppress freedom of expression and information in many international bodies. It is with Moscow's complicity that the massacres have continued in Syria for more than 14 months and it is with Moscow's support that the crackdown continues in Iran."
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