Strasbourg rules unanimously that Russian protesters’ article 10 rights were violated

The European Court of Human Rights has unanimously held that there was a violation of article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of five applicants who lodged separate complaints about the Russian authorities’ response to demonstrations held by each of them.

The court concluded that the authorities’ actions, for which they had not given relevant and sufficient reasons, had constituted a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression. In particular, the applicants had merely voiced their opinion in a non-violent manner.

The applicants, Marina Novikova, Yuriy Matsnev, Viktor Savchenko, Aleksandr Kirpichev, and Valeriy Romakhin, are Russian nationals who were born in 1972, 1937, 1967, 1984, and 1965 respectively and live in Moscow, Kaliningrad, the village of Platonovo-Petrovka in the Rostov Region, and Astrakhan.

They complained that the authorities’ actions had constituted a violation of their rights under article 10 (freedom of expression) and/or article 11 (freedom of assembly and association). Some of the applicants further alleged violations of article 5 (right to liberty and security) and of article 2 of Protocol 4 to the Convention (freedom of movement). The applications were lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 27 April 2007, 26 August 2011, 10 November 2012, 30 November 2012 and 20 May 2013 respectively.

The court examined the case under article 10 (freedom of expression), taking into account the principles of its case-law under article 11 (freedom of assembly and association). All applicants had chosen “solo static demonstrations” to express their opinion, because that was the only form of public event that did not require prior notification to the authorities.

According to the definition under domestic law, such a demonstration was a public expression of opinion that did not involve movement or the use of loudspeaker equipment and it consisted of one or more citizens with posters or other means of visual expression assembling near the place which was the object of the picketing. The applicants had used posters displaying slogans and the events staged by them had been non-violent and had not obstructed traffic. Furthermore, it was undisputed between the parties that the events concerned matters of public interest. The court considered that the demonstrations had constituted a form of political expression.

Although the applicants had chosen the form of “solo demonstrations” to express their opinions, the authorities had dealt with the situations of Ms Novikova, Mr Kirpichev and Mr Romakhin as matters falling within the ambit of the regulations concerning public group events and thus requiring prior notification.

The court was not satisfied that relevant and sufficient reasons had been given at national level for the swift termination of the demonstrations. The police orders to terminate the demonstrations had adversely affected the applicants’ right to freedom of expression. In addition, as the demonstrations had been non-violent, the court found that the authorities should have showed a degree of tolerance towards the demonstrators, for example by letting them complete their demonstrations.

Similar considerations applied concerning the proportionality of the applicants’ being taken to police stations. Since the situation had not given rise to particular public safety concerns and the demonstrations had been non-violent without any obstruction to the traffic, there had been no compelling reasons for their arrest.

Furthermore, the court was not satisfied that the applicants’ right to exercise their freedom of expression had been duly taken into consideration in the examination of the administrative-offence charges against them – having regard to the Public Assemblies Act.

A 2012 amendment to the Public Assemblies Act had introduced the requirement that a certain distance be observed between unrelated solo demonstrators and it had empowered the domestic courts to decide whether a public event was a “group event” or a solo static demonstration. As regards the competence to reclassify an event, after the fact, as a “group event” rather than a solo demonstration, the court could not see what legitimate aim, under article 10, the authorities sought to achieve. The court did not see sufficient reasons for convicting demonstrators for the nonobservance of the notification requirement who had merely been standing in a peaceful, non- disruptive manner at a distance of some fifty metres from each other. No compelling consideration relating to public safety, prevention of disorder or protection of the rights of others was at stake.

Finally, the court noted that the fines for breaches of the procedure for organising or running a public event had been increased ten-fold in 2012, which, in the court’s view was capable of creating a deterrent effect on legitimate recourse to protest.

The court concluded that the swift termination of the events followed by the applicants’ being taken to police stations and their prosecution for an administrative offence – the latter in the cases of Ms Novikova, Mr Kirpichev and Mr Romakhin – had constituted a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, in violation of article 10.

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