European Court again finds Russia in breach of right to protest

4 July 2019

On 2 July 2019, the European Court gave judgment in a group of cases (Ryabinina and others v. Russia), submitted by nine applicants, who were unlawfully detained following protests in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad between 2006 and 2010. The Court unanimously held that the right to freedom of assembly and association had been violated in all applications.

The applicant in the leading case, Yelena Ryabinina, was jointly represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) and Memorial Human Rights Centre. She was unlawfully detained at a protest against a media campaign and public statements by the FSB accusing Russian NGOs of espionage or accepting funding from foreign intelligence services. Following her death in 2014, her daughter continued  the case on her behalf.

What happened in 2006? 

Six years before the infamous “foreign agents” law was passed, a state-owned TV channel aired a film “Spies”, accusing NGOs of co-operating with and receiving funding from the British intelligence service. The accused NGOs denied the accusations, stating that although they received funding from the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the money was used to support the development of civil society in Russia and all information was publicly available.

Human rights defenders sought authorisation for a small picket in front of the entrance to the FSB building in Moscow in protest. The authorities repeatedly attempted to change the picket’s location (to the Solovetskiy Stone memorial), and failed to provide reasons as to why the initial location was unacceptable. About 30 protesters, including Ms. Ryabinina, gathered at the Solovetskiy Stone at 5pm on 1 February 2006 holding placards accusing the FSB of lying.  Shortly afterwards, the protesters proceeded to the FSB building, where the authorities had installed metal barriers the night before. The police arrested and detained the applicant and 15 other people. They were charged with the administrative offence of breach of the established procedure for the conduct of public assemblies (Article 20.2(2) Administrative Offences Code). Ms. Ryabinina was found guilty and fined 500 roubles (15 Euros).  Her conviction was upheld on appeal. Seeking justice, she filed an application at the European Court.

What has the European Court found?  

This case is similar to numerous other Russian cases in which the Court has found violations of Article 11 (the right to freedom of assembly), including the leading case of Lashmankin and Others v. Russia, on which it based its reasoningIn Lashmankin, the Court found that:

“the authorities did not give relevant and sufficient reasons for their proposals to change the location, time or manner of conduct of the applicants’ public events. These proposals were based on legal provisions which did not provide for adequate and effective legal safeguards against arbitrary and discriminatory exercise of the wide discretion left to the executive and which did not therefore meet the Convention “quality of law” requirements.” (para. 471)

In the present case, the Court reiterated that the interference with Ms. Ryabinina’s right to protest was based on domestic law, which the Court had already found did not meet the quality of law requirements of the Convention, and that the restriction on her right to protest was not necessary in a democratic society. The Court ordered Russia to pay the applicant 15 Euros in pecuniary damage and 5,000 Euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

Significance of the case

This case is one of many decided or pending cases against Russia concerning systemic violations of the right to protest.  Since the events in this case, the situation has deteriorated still further.  In 2012, the “foreign agents” law was passed. In addition, regulations governing demonstrations became even more stringent and the level of fines increased (up to a maximum fine of 300,000 roubles, almost 4,200 Euros). Russian courts may order up to 200 hours of public service, or impose a criminal sentence in respect of repeat offences. In 2019, the Constitutional Court of Russia found that authorisations for demonstrations cannot be refused on the basis of the protesters’ “inability to provide security”[1].