Police beating of St. Petersburg “Dissenters’ March” protestors found to breach European Convention on Human Rights

Published: 16 Jun 2020

Dissenters’ March, Pionerskaya Square, St. Petersburg, 15 April 2007

The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) today ruled that two peaceful protestors suffered inhuman and degrading treatment when they were savagely beaten by riot police at a peaceful rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007. The authorities later failed to properly investigate their allegations. The ECtHR also found that “disproportionate” force was used against the pair, along with a third protestor, in violation of their right to peaceful assembly.

The protest in St. Petersburg took place as part of the so-called “Dissenters’ March”, a series of opposition rallies held by a loose anti-government coalition across Russian cities from December 2006 to May 2007.

EHRAC, together with Memorial HRC, represented the three applicants – Aleksandr Kazantsev, Nataliya Kazantseva, and Olga Tsepilova – in this case.

Olga Tsepilova (PHOTO: Memorial HRC)

“13 years have passed since the Dissenters’ March. The perpetrators of the beatings have not been punished but Aleksandr Kazantsev’s family and I have now been financially and morally compensated. The most important thing is that the repressive State will see that people can defend themselves when they are beaten.”

What happened to the protestors?

On 15 April 2007 hundreds of protestors assembled at noon on Pionerskaya Square in St. Petersburg. The opposition rally had been authorised by the city authorities.

Pionerskaya Square was cordoned off by metal railings and several rows of police officers. In total, over 6,100 police officers were deployed on the day of the protest.

When the rally came to an end, the police directed protestors to a nearby metro station, as the surrounding streets had been blocked off. Riot police then rushed the crowd and began indiscriminately hitting all those around them.

Police cordon, Pionerskaya Square, St. Petersburg, 15 April 2007.

Aleksandr Kazantsev was approached and brutally assaulted by a riot police officer. The beating was so severe that it left him lying unconscious on the floor. Aleksandr’s wife Nataliya carried him to an ambulance with the help of other protestors. He was rushed to Mariinskiy Hospital where he was found to have sustained a fractured rib, a collapsed lung, a brain injury, and concussion.

Olga Tsepilova was hit in the face by an officer with a rubber truncheon. The force of the blow almost knocked her unconscious. Olga too was helped to safety by other protestors. She was subsequently found to have sustained a brain injury, concussion, and fractures to her nose and right cheek bone.

Both Aleksandr and Olga remained in hospital for several days after the protest before being released for outpatient treatment. They later submitted complaints to the St. Petersburg prosecution authorities about the police brutality, and a criminal case was opened in June 2007.

According to the Government’s version of events, the riot police had used force to quell a separate, unauthorised march at the end of the rally by a group of 60 persons under the flags of the National Bolshevik Party.

On two separate occasions, the domestic courts found that prosecutors had failed to comply with time-limits for the examination of individual complaints, had unlawfully denied the applicants access to the case-file of the enquiry, and had failed to ensure their procedural rights during the investigation.

The criminal investigation was suspended seven times before the proceedings were abandoned in June 2009. The authorities claimed that the police perpetrators could not be identified, so charges could not be brought. 

What did the Court find?

It was never in dispute that Aleksandr and Olga had been beaten by unidentified police officers on the day of the rally. The Government immediately acknowledged that fact. The Court was therefore able to find that the violent acts committed against Aleksandr and Olga constituted inhuman and degrading treatment (Art. 3 of the ECHR).

The point that was in contention was whether the authorities’ investigation into the events had been effective or not.

The Court noted that, despite the fact that the applicants’ complaints were supported by medical evidence of ill-treatment, it took the authorities two months to initiate a criminal investigation, and an additional two and five months, respectively, in order to grant Aleksandr and Olga victim status in the criminal proceedings.

Despite four years of criminal investigation, the authorities were never able to identify the police officers responsible for the beatings. Investigators claimed that they had been wearing closed helmets and had no identification markings on their uniform.

Officers responsible for the cordoning were apparently questioned, and investigators reportedly examined some video and photo materials.

But the criminal case-file did not contain details concerning those officers or a description of the materials examined. No further steps were taken to identify the officers responsible for the attacks, and the applicants were not informed of the substance of the investigation.

The Court concluded that that the material did not indicate that the investigation was “thorough or public” and it therefore fell short of Convention requirements, in violation of the procedural limb of Art. 3 as regards Aleksandr and Olga.

It was also never in doubt that the applicants’ conduct during the protest was peaceful. Taking into account Aleksandr and Olga’s ill-treatment by the police, and the fact that the domestic courts had established that the police had exceeded their powers during the operation on the day of the protest, the Court also found that the force applied was “disproportionate” and in violation of the three applicants’ right to peaceful assembly (Art. 11 of the ECHR).

The Court ordered Russia to pay the applicants a total of €46,074 in damages.