On March 13, police raided the first federal forum of municipal deputies in Moscow, arresting almost 200 attendees and charging them with the administrative offence of participation in activities of “undesirable organizations.” It marked the largest number of people hit with “undesirable” charges in a single day since the “undesirable organizations” law was adopted in 2015.
The purpose of the forum, organized by the United Democrats, was to exchange best practices and skills for running election campaigns and working with grassroot candidates.
Russia’s repressive “undesirable foreign organizations law” bans foreign groups that authorities claim threaten Russia’s national security. Anyone deemed to be involved with one faces administrative and--if convicted of more than two offences in one year-- criminal penalties.
In the charge sheets, police claim that attending the forum constitutes participating in the activities of Open Russia Civic Movement, which authorities claimed was registered in the UK and was listed as “undesirable” by the Justice Ministry in 2017. Since then, several criminal cases were opened against activists affiliated with the Russian movement under the same name. Its activists in Russia insist they have no affiliation with the British organization. However, this has not prevented authorities from convicting three people on criminal “undesirable” charges and indicting or investigating at least two more.
The basis for the police claims were social media posts by the Russian Open Russia movement and by two of its leaders, in which they advertised the event and the fact they were listed as panelists or moderators. That was sufficient for police to storm a peaceful and legitimate gathering of elected deputies, detain and slap them with ill-founded accusations of wrongdoing.
The raid seems clearly aimed at intimidating potential opposition candidates in advance of the September 2021 regional and parliamentary elections.
This is not an isolated incident but part of a much wider and deeper crackdown going on in Russia that involves a new wave of restrictive laws targeting civil society, prosecutions and imprisonment of opposition figures, and even attempts on their lives.
The result has been widespread and systematic violations of the rights to peaceful assembly, association, free expression, and liberty and security of the person, rights guaranteed not only under international law, but Russia’s Constitution.
This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.