Today, Russian authorities threatened to file charges against people who take part in protests scheduled for February 14. Prosecutors also threatened prosecution of social media and website owners if they continue to promote the St. Valentine’s Day protests.
But this isn’t about street protests. It’s an absurd reaction to people lighting flashlights and candles on St. Valentine’s Day.
The past few weeks have seen hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters across Russia detained at record numbers, intense police brutality, baseless criminal charges against organizers, and allegations of unfair trials and inhumane treatment. The protests have been organized by supporters of imprisoned political opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who announced they would suspend further protests until spring given authorities’ violent response.
But earlier this week, Navalny’s team called for an organized flashmob on February 14, suggesting people go to their yards for 15 minutes, light a flashlight or candle, and post it on social media. The flashmob slogan is, “Love can defeat fear.”
But even this entirely peaceful action isn’t safe for protesters in Russia.
The day after the announcement, an MP from Russia’s ruling party stated they might consider new legislative bans and penalties against such flashmobs and warned that law enforcement could consider prosecuting those urging people to participate in them. Other MPs compared the flashmob to the actions of saboteurs during World War II who used flashlights to mark targets for Nazi bombardments.
In its statement today, the Interior Ministry reminded everyone authorities had already opened 90 criminal cases in relation to earlier protests in January and February.
The authorities’ response to Sunday’s planned flashmob is particularly cynical given their markedly different reaction to several recent pro-Putin demonstrations. Media reports allege organizers of those demonstrations coerced and misled students and others to take part under pretenses of shooting a music video. One pro-Putin demonstration included a large group of youths standing near the statue of Motherland with flashlights lit on their phones. Yet no one was prosecuted, harassed, or detained in relation to these demonstrations.
Russian authorities need to stop this absurd repression and end their discriminatory assault on free expression and peaceful assembly.
This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.