Staunton, February 2 – By increasing the penalties for participation in protests, the Russian government has been able to reduce the number of people taking part, even though these penalties “sabotage” a decision of the Russian Constitutional Court and the courts often have dismissed charges, according to a detailed analysis of sentencing practice in 2012-2013.
In an article in “Novaya gazeta” on Friday, Pavel Chikhov and Aleksey Glukhov of Agora, the Kazan-based Inter-Regional Association of Human Rights Organizations, say that they see little chance that the authorities will change this pattern anytime soon and thus suggest Russians may avoid protests given the risks (novayagazeta.ru/politics/62049.html).
Since the adoption of the 2004 law on meetings, Chikhov and Glukov say, the country has passed through three periods: the first between 2004 and mid-2011 when protest activity was low even though penalties for protest were also low, the second from mid-2011 to mid-2012 when protests increased, and the third after that when protest activity was again reduced because of the establishment of greater penalties.
Until mid-2011, the circle of protesters was small, even though penalties were minimal, but “the situation changed sharply in the second half of 2011,” when as a result of parliamentary and presidential elections, the number of demonstrators increased and participation broadened.
In response, President Vladimir Putin pushed through a law increasing fines and other punishments, and the number of those taking part in protests fell dramatically both because the country had passed out of the election season and because of the increased risks for anyone charged with violating the new laws.
The AGORA researchers examined the situation during the 12 months before the law was adopted and the 12 months afterwards because more recent data is not yet available. They found that the 2000 percent increase in fines between these two periods drove down the number of people taking part in public demonstrations.
In the first period, 4500 people were sentenced under the new legislation, but in the second fewer than 1500. Preliminary data for the subsequent periods show that the numbers of people have continued to fall, with 921 charged in the second half of 2012 and 515 charged iin the first half of 2013.
The authorities initiated more than twice as many cases, but according to AGORA, the courts tossed out some of them or demanded better evidence as the law was toughened and penalties increased. But at the same time, the courts generally imposed the harsher sentences required by the new law on those who were convicted – even though the Constitutional Court has allowed them to impose lesser ones.