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HRW says response to protests show how rights standards have ‘plummeted’ in Russia

Navalny Protesters (putnik/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says “extreme” police brutality and “mass” arbitrary detentions during weekend protests across Russia are further evidence of “how low human rights standards have plummeted” in the country.

“Ultimately this repression of basic human rights only galvanizes people and deepens their [protesters’] grievances,” Damelya Aitkhozhina, the Russia researcher at the New York-based watchdog, said in a statement on January 25, two days after thousands of Russians were detained during protests against the arrest of Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny and deep-rooted government corruption.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities across the country on January 23 in Russia’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.

The independent political watchdog OVD-Info reported that more than 3,700 people were detained during the largely peaceful protests, which the authorities had refused to sanction, often citing restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia’s ombudswoman for children’s issues, Anna Kuznetsova, said that about 300 minors were among those detained, including 70 in Moscow and 30 in St. Petersburg.

HRW cited “numerous” reports of excessive use of force by police, noting that video footage showed officers “beating people with batons, pushing people to the ground, and kicking them.”

TASS quoted a source in the law enforcement as saying 38 adults and five teenagers sought medical aid in Moscow alone after the protests.

The independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers said it reported more than 50 incidents of police assaulting journalists and detaining them in at least 17 cities.

Russian authorities have also launched criminal cases against individuals accused of calling for mass riots, violence against police, and violating coronavirus-related public-health rules.

In previous years, the Russian authorities retaliated against participants in mass protests with “showcase witch-hunt trials, which resulted in long prison terms,” according to HRW.

“Time and time again, Russian authorities have suppressed free speech and peaceful protest through police brutality, violence, and mass arrests and January 23 was no exception,” Aitkhozhina said.

She said the Russian authorities “understand their obligations to respect fundamental human rights and choose not just to ignore them but to trample all over them.”

Navalny was detained a week ago upon returning to Russia after he flew back to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent in August.

A court is expected to decide on February 2 whether to convert into prison time the suspended 3 1/2-year sentence that the opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader served in an embezzlement case that is widely considered trumped up and politically motivated.

Navalny, whose suspended sentence ended on December 30, says it is a trumped-up case designed to silence him.

EU foreign ministers are considering on January 25 their response to Navalny’s arrest and the police crackdown on protesters.

Russia has rebuffed the global outrage over the police violence and the chorus of international calls calling for Navalny’s release.