As Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, people around the world took to the streets to protest the blatant act of aggression. Courageously, thousands matched in cities across Russia and Belarus, risking their freedom to show solidarity with Ukraine.
Since 24th February, more than 15,000 people have been detained in Russia for participating in peaceful protests. The police used brutal force to disperse gatherings, and those who were arrested faced ill-treatment and abuse, while in custody. There are dozens of cases of police beating up protestors and the authorities have made it clear that those participating in protests will face consequences.
On 4th March, Russia introduced changes to the Russian Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences, outlawing “public actions aimed at discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces. Public calls to stop the conflict, or even refer to it as “war” can lead to fines of up to 50,000 rubels. Those who break the law repeatedly and are tried for the same charge within one year, face up to three years in prison. Since the introduction of the law, there have been at least 60 administrative cases launched against anti-war protestors.
The heavy-handed treatment of peaceful protestors has long been a part of the Russian playbook. In 2019, ARTICLE 19 called for the dropping of the charges against individuals accused for ‘breaching’ Russia’s Protest Law, following protests against the decision to block several independent candidates from standing in municipal elections. In 2021, mass protests erupted in support of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as he was arrested following his return to Russia. More than a 100 people faced criminal charges and one was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for allegedly blocking traffic during a protest in Moscow.
Now, even demonstrating support for Ukraine online can lead to drastic consequences. People have lost their jobs for signing online petitions, or were forced to flee the country because of opinions they shared on social media.
Protests in Belarus have been met with a similar response. On 27th February, more than 800 Belarusians were arrested while protesting the war in Ukraine. Since 2020, when thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the rigged re-election of president Alexander Lukashenko, more than 35,000 people were arrested and many still remain behind bars. The use of force and torture to silence dissent and crackdown on anti-government sentiments led to thousands of people feeling Belarus.
The right to protest and assembly is tightly connected to the right to freedom of expression. It’s central to the functioning of an open society, where individuals can express opinions, participate in public life and affect change. The persecution and intimidation of protestors in Russia and Belarus needs to be monitored closely and vehemently opposed – authoritarianism can only be stopped through support of those on the ground, who risk their lives and continue to bravely speak out for truth and justice.