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The Most Peaceful Protests in the World Take Place in Russia
Alex Finiariel, student, detained for a week for participation in a peaceful protest, describes his experience
Facebook Post by Alex Finiarel
Translated by the HereWeStand Team
I have spent the week from July 27 to August 4, 2019 as a prisoner of the Russian state.

It cannot be called otherwise – being a prisoner or even being kidnapped – because in order to call it an arrest there should be at least a shadow of due process.

In my case, it is difficult to call my detention due process.
Alexander Finiarel
A Philosophy Student
I was detained on Trubnaya Square, where a meeting with the independent candidates was held (by law, such meetings do not require specific registration). Of course, Russian authorities considered it to be a continuation of the peaceful protest held earlier that day, although everyone who came to Trubnaya did so independently.

The detainees at Trubnaya were ascribed to be the most dangerous revolutionaries who reached the final location by the Russian authorities. They were charged with part 6.1 of article 20.2. of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation ("Participation in an unauthorized meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picket that caused interference with the functioning of life support facilities, transport or social infrastructure, communications, the movement of pedestrians and (or) vehicles or citizens' access to residential premises or transport or social facilities infrastructure") since under this article one can be arrested. This means the authorities can keep detainees at a police department longer and then punish them harder.

At the same time, this article has been explained by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. If I understood the words of my lawyer, Maria Eismont, correctly, according to its explanation, serious consequences of blocking the infrastructure must be proven for application of that article. For example, an ambulance did not get to the patient, who died precisely because the protesters blocked the road in a particular place. Such consequences, of course, did not take place there.

I have not been a very active participant of the protest. When the police began chaotic detentions, I tried to get away from the main events and wanted to leave. But I could not do this because the square was surrounded by riot police; so, basically, I did not have the opportunity to comply with the "legal requirements of the police officers" to leave that square. Therefore, I started to take photos of the confrontation between the riot police and peaceful participants of the protest under a flower arch. Exactly at that moment, the two laziest policemen that were passing by arrested me. I could not oppose them because I understood that it would only get worse if I did.

However, the level of my participation in the protest and my interactions with the police are not very important here for two reasons.

There were no infrastructure facilities that the participant of the event could block on Trubnaya Square – people were standing on the boulevard and they could be easily circumvented. So, there was nothing to impute to the aforementioned part of Section 6.1 of Article 20.2. It was the police who actually blocked something there: people could not leave a cafe or even the square because of them. Those arrested are charged with blocking Tverskaya Street and Tsvetnoy Boulevard. However, the police do not have any clear evidence of that. During trials, the police provided video and photos showing just a walking crowd in which I (and other detainees) did not appear; also, they enclosed reports of the policemen who claimed they had seen us there, although they were not present on the square during the detentions. Some of the detainees even had the person who made the report present at the trial (although they refused to call these people to other trials), and he confirmed to the lawyer's questions that he had not seen those detainees, even though the opposite was said in his report. Basically, during the trial, he admitted that he lied in the report. Yet, the court did not find any reason not to believe the words of the police officers, because there were no contradictions in their testimonies that copied each other.

As for me, during the closure of these streets I was in other places – I bought the issue of the Theater magazine about feminism (and I keep all receipts confirming that) and laid flowers to the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation in support of the Khachaturian sisters (more information on their case is available here). Of course, the court was also not interested in that. At the same time, the testimonies of witnesses from my side who confirmed that we had met only on Trubnaya Square, and I had stood there peacefully with a small book, had not bothered anyone and had obeyed the requirements of police officers (whereas it says in the reports that I did not obey) were rejected by the court with a notion that they were "subjective".

The idea that rallies need to be sanctioned contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The "unsanctioned event" does not mean "illegal" one. It is necessary to inform about the planned rallies in advance. Only in those cases when there are severe reasons not to hold a rally in a particular place, the government authorities must confirm that providing clear evidence and suggest a good alternative place. I do not believe that there is only Sakharov's Avenue as the only safe place to hold rallies in the centre of Moscow. Especially, when the authorities constantly arrange their rallies either at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior or on Tverskaya Street.

So, the rejections to hold opposition rallies are illegal; and, according to the decision of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the unlawful refusal to hold a rally or other public event (processions, demonstrations, etc.) is an administrative offence. However, legal regulations on rallies are formulated in such a vague way that "unsanctioned event" and "interfering with the functioning of life support facilities" also refer to situations of the so-called "impossibility of ensuring security" or "interfering with the movement of pedestrians". The authorities constantly refer to the "impossibility of ensuring security" in case of refusal to hold rallies; however, our rallies are so peaceful that if the authorities do not bring policemen to them, we could be sure that no one will be hurt and people would just shout peacefully at the Mayor's Office for several hours, walk around the city and calmly disperse. Actually, this was the case in St. Petersburg on Russia Day last year when the police almost did not intervene, and the demonstrators marched from the Field of Mars to the Uprising Square (Ploshchad' Vosstaniya) and then dispersed. When the police are intervening, we immediately start getting injuries, detentions, arrests, and criminal cases. During rallies, it is the police who create problems for citizens and not a protest itself.
However, during my participation in a peaceful assembly that did not bother anyone, I was seized and taken to a police prison van. According to the rules, people should only sit in a wagon. It is not allowed to stand there. However, when I got there, no more seats were available. And the detainees had just begun to resist having some other detainees put in there because there was no more room even for standing. In total, when we were taken to Alekseevskaya police department, there were 24 of us on the bus. When we arrived at the police station, police started to take us out separately and write the incident reports which took a lot of time – in total, I spent about 5 hours in a stuffy paddy wagon without water
Preliminary Detention
However, during my participation in a peaceful assembly that did not bother anyone, I was seized and taken to a police prison van. According to the rules, people should only sit in a wagon. It is not allowed to stand there. However, when I got there, no more seats were available. And the detainees had just begun to resist having some other detainees put in there because there was no more room even for standing. In total, when we were taken to Alekseevskaya police department, there were 24 of us on the bus. When we arrived at the police station, police started to take us out separately and write the incident reports which took a lot of time – in total, I spent about 5 hours in a stuffy paddy wagon without water.

At first, we thought that this was done to extend the time of our stay there because we believed that the time of detention began from the moment of our arrival to the police station building. To keep us more than 3 hours under the article for participation in the unsanctioned event was not allowed. However, only during the process of drawing up the protocols we found out that we were charged with an arresting article. Also, before that, violating the rules, our phones were taken away by the police (according to the rule, they must be taken only after the protocol was drawn up), so we could not tell anyone what kind of article was charged to us. The police officers did not even explain our rights and the essence of their charge during the process of drawing up the protocols (one more violation of our rights). Later we found out the lawyer from the human rights advocacy project "Apology of Protest" had come to the police department, and the police had not let him in (violation again).
After the reports were filed, we got divided – 8 people, including me, remained at the Alekseevskaya police station – and the rest were taken to other stations. We spent the first night not knowing why we were being held for so long, what would happen to us, and why we did not receive any help (at least my friends were able to deliver a package with food and water). All eight of us were kept in a plexiglass cage with poor ventilation and only 4 mattresses available (there were no more of them at the police station as it turned out later). Also, it was stuffy and there was no way to get some sleep (it was not a torture, yet it was on the verge of it, and it is certainly a violation of conditions of detention). At the same time, there were two more free cells at the police station for 3 people each but for some reason, they did not put us in there.

The situation changed only on the next day after human rights defenders from the Public Monitoring Commission visited the department. When they entered the cell, they were horrified by the conditions of detention and stuffiness, due to which several detainees, including me, almost fainted. In response to their remarks, the head of the police office timidly said, "Well, yes, a little uncomfortable, a little stuffy." I imagine him being "a little uncomfortable" like that. Unfortunately, even wonderful Ekaterina Schulmann from the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights failed to convince him that there had been no reason to keep us detained pending trial. Nevertheless, the situation improved and we started getting plenty of public support. From time to time, officers on duty allowed us to go out for a smoke and tried their best to make our stay comfortable. All that remained was to wait until Monday – either we would have to face the court or the permitted period of detention would expire by then.
The Trial
The courts were extremely busy on Monday, so only 3 out of 8 detainees including me were randomly selected and sent to court. We found lawyers for ourselves only right on the spot, and we have developed a defense strategy out of what we had right before the arraignment. Obviously, we were not given extra time to prepare. Apparently, judge D.V. Petukhov did not even listen to what the defendants were saying since all the court reports were the same: the defendants allegedly claimed they had been out for a walk but had not participated in the rally. Hoping to avoid "punishment" (I'm using quotation marks because the punishment is something imposed for the crime but there was no crime in what we did), many people tried to say that they had just been passing by. Understanding that all of us will be indicted anyway I decided ideologically to admit that I had been engaged in the meeting with the deputies. Nevertheless, the judge wrote in my judgement the same as that of the other defendants, thus rudely distorting my and my witnesses' testimonies recorded in my appeal and in my lawyer's statement.

Another peculiar trait of my trial was that those who had permanent Moscow registration were given a fine, and those who did not have it were given a seven-day arrest. In comparison, my cellmates were all from the same police-van and together with all the other people who were in it they were sentenced up to 10 days in a detention centre. There is no legal ground for it because a plenary session of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation decided that administrative detention for violations during rallies and other public actions is permissible only in exceptional cases and imposed fines may be lower than those in Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses. Thus, the court did not only imposed a "punishment" disproportionately severe for the "crime" (you can get even less for beating your wife or driving without a license while being intoxicated) but it also reproduced the state propaganda point that non-Muscovites allegedly came in large numbers (or were brought in) to interfere in our local elections. Well, it really is no secret that Moscow has a lot of people from outside! I have been living and studying here for five years now, I love this city and think of it as my own. So it is not surprising that I am not indifferent to local elections, although I do not have the right to vote.
Actually, I have another idea: they should check by districts – there might be someone from a district with no unregistered independent candidates – and tell these people that this protest is none of their business so they should stay out. Moreover, I have been involved in these elections for a long time: I am a member of an election commission with a casting vote (which means that basically I can not be charged with administrative punishment without the approval of the Moscow Prosecutor General – however, everyone forgot about it in the bustle). I know how signatures for independent candidates were collected very well: all the information was taken not from memory but only from the passports directly, every squiggle was checked, every error was fixed. In addition, I also know how signatures for pro-government candidates were collected, because once one of their signature collectors came up to me – he looked extremely untidy and was clearly a little drunk. He suggested leaving a signature without asking if I had the right to do this in this district, and even my objection that I did not have Moscow registration did not bother him at all. Only parts with names, dates and signatures were filled in his papers while passport information was missing.

My OVD handler was very tense about the whole situation from the start and tried to have everyone assigned to him under his full control until the attorneys explained to him that he had to give them time to talk to me privately, figure out a defense strategy, etc. After that he got a bit calmer and kept distance from us waiting for the judge's ruling. After receiving it, he got confused. At first, he tried to pass me off to the bailiffs but they said I was 'not their client' and the OVD had to deal with the ruling itself. Apparently, at my station, they have never had that kind of experience. Still, he called a car and while waiting we got to talking about politics. It turned out he mostly agrees with the protesters, although does not believe in protesting (instead, he suggested that 1000 people chain themselves to the Federation Council building in a hunger strike). My cellmates told me later that their handlers also had expressed their discontent with the government and that some policemen said they would quit if asked to go and beat up protesters. At the station, the woman who was choosing cases for court hearings approached me and said she was sorry that I got arrested and had to go to court, even though she was choosing cases at random. I also spoke to a few cops who were a lot nicer to the detainees a few days after the protest and were way more likely to talk. I found out that most of them considered themselves apolitical and worked not for the idea but just to survive somehow. A number of them are tired of the government and the quality of life in the country but just do not know what to do to change it because they convinced themselves that nothing can be changed. Almost every policeman I talked to asked me right away how much money I got for protesting, and to each of them I replied that the only people who got paid for being at the protest are the police. I was shocked when one of them ended up telling me that they even do not get paid for extra work hours or working on the weekends and their labour union was abolished by the government (even though the protests are a perfect opportunity for them to push for their rights, too).
The Detention Center
Then I was moved to the special detention centre #1 on Simferopolskiy Boulevard. There was a long line of the newly detained, so we had to wait for around 3 hours at the gate. Moreover, I spent another 3 hours at the station, and somehow these 6 hours slipped out of my detention time, so I was let go not at 9 pm, as the detention protocol states, and not at 6.55 pm, as the court protocol states, but at 3.15 am, only by the time of registration at the centre. At that point, I had no strength to worry about what would happen – I wanted to sleep. So I entered the cell without panicking, although the guy that met me there seemed scary at first. Next morning I found out that 6 out of 14 people in the cell were protesters, so my fear was almost gone. The rest of the detainees ended up being pretty nice too: they introduced themselves, explained the rules, told me what they were arrested for, told jokes and tried not to disturb each other. Most people were at the detention centre for driving without a license, although for most of them it was not their first arrest and most had done their time in prison already, which was not reflected, however, in their genuinely nice attitude towards the newcomers. After OVD the special detention centre seemed like a sanatorium. A very bad sanatorium with dirty, old and uncomfortable mattresses and pillows, disposable cotton sheets that looked like huge wet wipes, tiny and dirty cells with toilets behind thin walls that went up to your shoulders, meals, tasteless and badly made but still coming three times a day, bottles of hot water kept under the blankets in the corner to keep the temperature up, one table for one cell, absent toothbrushes, toothpaste and towels (let me remind you, they put you there right after the court hearing so you do not have an opportunity to get ready) and one shower a week (even at the pre-trial centre it was twice a week). Once a day we went for a 30-minutes walk and were allowed to use our phones for 15 minutes.

On the second day of my detention, some people from the Investigative Committee and the Criminal Investigation Department came in (as far as I understand, they are coming to see everyone who got arrested at the protests, and we were the easiest to get to and to put pressure on). They tried to interrogate us as witnesses, using the loophole that witnesses can be interrogated without a lawyer. We refused to answer anything, just like at the OVD, on the grounds of article 51 of the Constitution. In the end, they still got data out of us that we were not obligated to give (which is any data aside from passport data) and forced some of us to get pictures taken and give saliva samples. We could have said no to the latter on the grounds of the good old article 51 but some of us (including me) were outright lied to when the investigator was explaining our constitutional rights (that again is a violation) who said we could not say no to it. Besides, some policemen came to one of the detainee's parent's house with a questioning and an edifying conversation – so tell your parents that in case something happens they do not have to talk to anybody and have the right to use article 51.

A man who provoked a sudden and an acute conflict in the detention cell was sent to us the next day. Nobody noticed him at first, but when seasoned detainees decided to talk to him. They all began fighting on jargon mainly and it was extremely hard for inexperienced detainees to get half of the talk. When everything finally settled down, we tried to find out the main core of the fight and learned the following. In the early 2000s, Putin decided to try to eradicate the thieves' culture with the help of radical violence (because why bother getting rid of social reasons, giving birth to these problems when you can just use violence, that iss extremely effective) and the so-called "black zones" appeared. As it happened previously, the order in these zones was established based on mutual agreement between "thieves in law" and the administration. The "red zones", which were fully controlled by the police, offered detainees a choice. They could either drop their status and serve the warders which only meant performing humiliating services and participating in violent acts against other prisoners, or sexual assault that automatically led to the loss of "thief in law" status and and made people a sort of outraged and constantly assaulted by the warders and other prisoners. The only way to avoid it is to harm yourself frequently and to be sent to the infirmary. That kind of system destroys you as a personality and forces you to dodge, betray, violate your conscience etc. That is why the prisoners from the red zones were, to put it mildly, disliked by the others and that very thing sparked the conflict in our cell. The newcomer said he had done time in the red zone, but there were no traces of self-harm found on him. He was suspected initially because he behaved weird, his speech gave no real depiction of his life, he was constantly pacing, invading personal space. He did not really understand the things he was told, uselessly repeating random facts again and again, talking to himself. It was not a severe madness, but a loss of touch with reality was definitely present. Thus, nothing from what we had learned about him can be trusted. Ironically, it was him, the man to a larger extent broken by this system (obviously he also have participated in the Chechen campaign and have lived like a homeless for a long time), who agitated for Putin and Shoigu (although even he admitted that there should be some independent candidates participating in the elections).

On the fourth day, I went to the Moscow Municipal Court for an appeal. The men who accompanied me turned it into a real circus and cuffed me using 2! pairs of handcuffs: one pair was on my hands and another pair was used to tie me up to the sergeant. After the hearing, they left only one pair to tie me up either to the sergeant or to a chair. I had a feeling that the judges were like puppets which were just articulating verdicts from a piece of paper. For all the responses from your side (including an argument about a distortion of my testimony by the Court of the first instance), they plug their ears and answer "blablablabla". Also I met with Vladislav Barabanov there, the newly arrested anarchist who told me that Michail Svetov, who had been arrested straight after a failed negotiation with the major for their encouragements to go for a rally that as it seems only became illegal after this negotiation failed, was sent to the detention facility in Bibirevo. We had a talk with the police again. Maria Eismont told them how awful our judicial system functions, in which 99,8% of verdicts are conviction verdicts. Recent extension of the practice of jury trial involvement into the process of household criminal cases has led to the decrease of this figure to 50%. That's not only because the jury became kinder, but also because the Prosecutor's office forgot how to work properly. She (Maria) once witnessed a trial of a man who repeatedly committed crimes, and the prosecutor's office started appealing to his moral image, "how could this man not be sentenced, he is a real criminal" and so on. The lawyer appealed to the fact that there was no real evidence of his crimes given, and surely the jury agreed with all the facts which the prosecutors didn't really have a hard time assembling them. The most savage case she has ever witnessed happened with people who had all the proofs (photos from the City Day, location evidence and so on) that they were 800 km far from Moscow at the very moment of crime, but they were convicted for 6 years with the protocol claiming the defense's proof literally "DOES NOT BOTHER THE COURT"! (this protocol is still available on the court's website).

Actually our entertainment program of immersive-interactive chamber social thriller was basically finished and what was left to do was reading for the whole days, doing crossword puzzles and looking at Aleksey Navalny, who was walking behind bars, in which our "hut" became undoubtedly better simply because he gave us cigarettes, thereby doing more for us than Putin, and conducting philosophical conversations, which by the way were very interesting. In our jail cell there were young and old, Atheists, Christians and Muslims, far left, pro-feminists, socialists, liberals, greens, market supporters, so we had many topics to talk about. We discussed the history of reforms in Russia; the structure of prisons as the tool of punishment instead of correction; church being the integral part of government, which leads to distortion of its principles and undermines the trust of congregation in a long term; narcophobia, which is stronger than the fear of violence; and Islam and terrorism being connected by accident due to social reasons, generated be colonial history. Besides (what was the most hilarious for me) we managed to discuss the structure of gender relations in modern society: that sexism towards women exactly generates a lot of things, which are dissed by men and this is why there is the dominant idea that men should not be emotional and doing housework, they are less involved into emotional connection with wives and children, which leads to the lack of emotional support from the family, high bar of divorces, stress, more common kids staying with mothers after divorcing and moreover high risk of depression, alcoholism and early death amongst males. Surprisingly for me I (green pro-feminist with far left views close to anarcho-communism) got on well the most with the guys, whose views were close to libertarianism (so he accordingly praised free market and was against green and feminist agenda). From the outset, I was not involved in a controversy with him, since I was frightened and exhausted and too lazy to do it, I did not want to get into fierce ideological conflict about arguments, that have been heard and said for hundred times. However, sometimes he said things, which were close to my point of view because minarchism and anarchism are inevitably forced to the idea of society as the regulator of many aspects of personal relationships. Finally, it appeared that we were not discorded too much, because feminism, social support and green agenda can be justified in terms of market.
When I was arrested, the hardest thing was to calm people down and tell that everything is fine, although I did not know what was going to happen to me. Even harder was telling them that there was no way to help me. Yes, specifically me, at that particular moment almost no one could help. But every one of us can help – you just need not to stay aloof, not to ignore the endless flow of violence and injustice that is poured on us every day. We need to speak about it and stand against it.
What After?
In the end, this protest and following detentions became an example of incredible desperate solidarity. People went out to a riot, knowing that they were going to be violently dispersed, knowing that police was stronger and more numerous than they were and that they could not do anything against the police whilst the police could do almost everything with them. And nevertheless, they went out. When I was at the protest, I felt unity with these people. Curiously enough since I always managed to speak humanly with law enforcement officers and since literally ALL my friends immediately stood up for me, I continued to feel unity with others until the very end. At the protest there were less empty and controversial slogans such as "Cops are the shame of Russia", "we ("we" who? and who are "they" then?) are the power here", "lustration"(what is the point of threatening in general?), and more slogans calling for solidarity, including also police officers (who, they said, are also afraid of us). The most powerful moment for me was singing the national anthem to which the police secretly joined with one lip. It seems that people for whom our country and its symbols have long been a symbol of interference in life and coercion are finally gradually overcoming the gap between the "patriot" and the "liberal", returning Russia to themselves. I think we should try further to reappropriate patriotic agenda and attempts to solidify with the police and our other compatriots. Yes, there are notorious bastards beating defenseless people who came to a peaceful rally. However, the police and the Russian Guard are not monolithic structures consisting of identical fools. Very different people serve there, many of whom are more likely to support the protesters and the party of changes, and these different people can and should be addressed. Only in this way can we change something.
According to myself, while the rest of the year until the term, which allows to punish me twice for the same "crime" and give greater "punishment", is up I will abstain from participation in unsanctioned rallies (which certainly will not stop me from attending the authorized ones). Instead, I am planning to help arrested people and I urge you to do the same.

When I was arrested, the hardest thing was to calm people down and tell that everything is fine, although I did not know what was going to happen to me. Even harder was telling them that there was no way to help me. Yes, specifically me, at that particular moment almost no one could help. But every one of us can help – you just need not to stay aloof, not to ignore the endless flow of violence and injustice that is poured on us every day. We need to speak about it and stand against it.

But not everyone has privileges like these. The person, who was with us at the jail cell, was convicted of murder. He committed it accidentally during the fight and did not even know that man was dead. When he was caught by the police, instead of bringing charges, they had been torturing him for two days, trying to beat out a confession. And the further a person moves away from the eyes of society, the less protected from the state he becomes. My experience shows we are all unprotected. At any time you can be seized, taken away, then they will not let lawyers in, violate all the rules of detention, judge without evidence, relying only on the report of the police officer and ignore the evidence you provide and after that torture you (you can read about it here). What is happening in Russia is no longer just an imitation of law, but a mockery of it. This is the power of a paramilitary group that can do with you almost anything it wants, and you can only complain to this very group that abused you. If the government applied the same standards to itself that it applies to protesters, then, based on my case alone, dozens of people would have to be fired and a few more would have to be arrested. Instead, it continues to send people, who have not done anything other than going to a peaceful rally, to jail illegally. A riot is broken shop-windows and burning cars. Russian protests are the most peaceful in the world. The worst thing that happened on July 27 and August 3 with the police was a few plastic bottles flying in their direction and an urn that a man threw to distract a policeman from beating another protester who was not even resisting. And only for this, he will go to prison for years, while there will be nothing to the police officer who use violence. And they call this peaceful gathering a riot and unleash a criminal case out of nothing, in which people who tried to coordinate the crowd could also go to jail. This whole system has been rotted for so long and it must be changed so do not stay aloof and only then Russia will be free!