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Where Fear Wins,
Silence Falls

A Story by Lisa Stigliz & Alexandra Urman
Originally Published in CMDS Blog

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.

The street protests triggered by these abuses have since grown dramatically, from some 20,000 participants in a July 21 rally to 50,000 on August 10.

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. Ten people have already been prosecuted following recent protests.
"There is no doubt that the authorities can send any participant in the protest action to prison [under these charges]"
Sergey Smirnov
MediaZona, Editor-In-Chief
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".