By Lisa Stigliz & Aleksandra Urman
Russian students are facing up to eight years in jail for alleged participation in a peaceful protest for fair elections. Russian civil society experiences the largest mobilization in years.
This summer doesn’t seem to end well for Yegor Zhukov, Daniil Konon and Valery Kostenok, three Russian students, with ages between 20 and 22. They were arrested in the first weeks of August for participation in and coordination of “mass riots,” which is how Russian authorities called the peaceful demonstration that took place in Moscow on July 27.
The three face up to eight years in jail.
Zhukov, 21, a student of political science at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics (HSE) University, has probably caught the authorities’ attention because of his YouTube channel, which has over 114,000 subscribers. Several hours before his arrest on the night of August 2, Zhukov posted a video in which he called to unity among the opposition supporters. The main message in the video drew parallels with the repression of all independent voices by the armed bureaucracy machine during Stalin’s times.
“Where fear wins, silence falls,”
Zhukov concluded. The phrase later became the slogan of Here We Stand, an international campaign aimed at pressing Russia’s authorities to release Zhukov and the other students.
The protests that shook up Moscow this summer were triggered by the upcoming elections for the Moscow City Duma, the city’s parliament. The latest similar spike of election-related protests in Russia happened during the winter of 2011–2012 following widespread media coverage of electoral fraud in parliamentary elections. This time, protests erupted months before elections, which are scheduled for September 2019. Protesters slammed a set of rules that hindered independent candidates from running in these elections.
According to the rules, candidates must get the support of at least 3% of the people living in their respective district to be able to run in the regional elections. The rules are misused by the authorities to prevent independent candidates, known to be critical of the current government, from running. As soon as opposition candidates submitted documents proving support of the people in their districts, the Moscow City Election Commission, the electoral regulator declared that many of the citizens that signed the support list were either “non-existent” or misspelled their names in the government databases, which rendered the documented support invalid.
That was enough to bar independent candidates from registering for elections. At the same time, the commission’s decisions sparked massive outrage, especially on social media, from people who found that their existence was practically “erased” by the government’s bureaucrats. Most of the unregistered candidates were jailed on administrative charges.
But in spite of the largely peaceful nature of the July 27 demonstration, Russian authorities launched a criminal case against the perpetrators of “mass riots,” jailing a dozen of people suspected of coordinating these protests. They included Zhukov, Konon and Kostenok.
To Riot or Not to Riot
According to the Article 212 in the Russian Criminal Code, the conviction for “mass riots” can land someone in prison between three and eight years. One of the most difficult legal aspects of the case against students that the lawyers defending them are grappling with is the vagueness of charges. Reports about the protests from both independent organizations and the Investigative Committee of Russia, the main investigative agency at federal level, vary widely when it comes to the nature of the protests. They can hardly agree whether “mass riots” took place at all.
Moreover, the legal provisions on “mass riots” are usually used by Russian authorities for political persecutions. “Initially, the [law] article on mass riots was used in case of riots in [prison] colonies and some cases of street riots involving arson and pogroms,” said Sergey Smirnov, editor-in-chief of Zona.Media, an outlet reporting on legal issues. Following an opposition demonstration in May 2012, authorities used Article 212 to launch lawsuits against 40 people who participated in the demonstration.
“There had been no doubt that this was a political case,” Smirnov said. The recent summer protests in Moscow were demonstrably peaceful, without violence, “let alone pogroms and arsons by demonstrators.” Nevertheless,
“the authorities again brought charges of mass disorder for political reasons,”
Smirnov said. He thinks that the charges are so vaguely worded that one can be indicted even for looking in the wrong direction. “There is no doubt that the authorities can send any participant in the protest action to prison [under these charges],” Smirnov said. Ten people have already been prosecuted following recent protests.
The main argument of the defenders of those more than a dozen people arrested on the “mass riots” charges is the lack of evidence that the riots happened at all. They demand prosecution to provide proof that riots happened, in fact.
Here We Stand Again
Pressure on authorities will hopefully tip the balance. According to one of Zhukov’s lawyers, Leonid Solovyev, the coverage of the arrests has a positive influence on the student’s case. However, he is disappointed by the lack of interest from government-run mass media. He wished the Russian media’s agenda shifted from political goals to moral grounds.
“A person is indeed jailed for nothing,”
Zhukov’s lawyer told us.
Groups of students in cooperation with human rights organizations have been vocal about the arrests, defending their peers’ rights. However, support from larger, more diverse social groups would help. People should understand that broader solidarity would only benefit the general public in the long run, said Armen Aramyan, chief editor of DOXA, a student media outlet, which coordinates part of the campaign to free students. DOXA has also provided help to the detained students prior to the opening of the criminal cases and continues to do so.
The campaign for free elections and against repression in Russia has thus far been centered on the battle between two narratives: one produced by Russian authorities and the government-affiliated media, and another one, promoted by independent journalists, observers and NGOs.
Media coverage of these narratives is important for the friends and families of the defendants as well as human rights NGOs who are all hopeful that authorities will eventually cave into the pressure. A sustained media campaign earlier this summer, for example, contributed to the release of Ivan Golunov, a Russian investigative journalist arrested on fabricated drug-dealing charges.
Human rights activists only hope that the history will repeat itself.
To sign the international petition in solidarity with Russian students and receive a weekly newsletter on the case, visit Here We Stand.