Moscow activist hotline braces for more reports of arrests and beatings

Public support for OVD-Info watchdog grows as riot police crack down on demonstrators

Riot police officers detain a participant of an unsanctioned rally urging fair elections at Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square on August 3rd, 2019. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Riot police officers detain a participant of an unsanctioned rally urging fair elections at Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square on August 3rd, 2019. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

 

As Russian law enforcers brace for yet another opposition rally in Moscow on Saturday afternoon, rights activists at OVD-Info will be waiting for the hotline to start ringing with reports of the first arrests and beatings.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Alla Frolova, the co-ordinator of the independent group that monitors political detentions and prosecutions and provides advice to casualties of Russia’s repressive legislation. “But our mission remains to ensure that nobody is left in a one-on-one confrontation with the system.”

Demonstrators have been gathering in central Moscow for four weekends in a row to protest against the exclusion of opposition-minded candidates from an upcoming city parliament election that they see as an affront to their constitutional right to choose their political representatives.

Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor and a steadfast Kremlin loyalist, says the rallies have been driven by radical opposition activists bent on bringing chaos and disorder to the city in a bid to usurp power. Riot police have mobilised in huge numbers to crack down on the most recent meetings, seizing not just peaceful demonstrators but also passers-by.

As the drama on the streets of Moscow has unfolded, OVD-Info has transformed from a niche human rights organisation to the go-to source for anyone seeking information or redress from the wave of police repressions.

Crowds targeted

A glance at the group’s website shows that the odds of being dragged off to a police van from the recent election protests have been extraordinarily high. Some 1,373 people were arrested at a rally on July 27th, more than one-third of the 3,500-strong crowd police said attended the event. Another 1,000 were taken into custody at a smaller demonstration on the city boulevards last weekend that police said drew 1,500 participants.

Those who escaped immediate reprisals have known no peace. Law enforcers say they are using surveillance videos from the rallies to track down a wide range of suspected offenders from debtors to military draft dodgers to irresponsible parents.

In another alarming development, state investigators have opened criminal cases against 11 people for stirring what they describe as “mass civil unrest” at the protests, an offence punishable with up to eight years in jail.

“The authorities have mobilised all structures, the police, security services, courts, bailiffs and the army to scare people,” says Frolova. “They want to warn people that they have everyone and everything under control.”

OVD-Info was founded by a couple of Russian activists who, after struggling to find colleagues arrested at a massive anti-government protest in December 2011, realised that an independent information service was needed to compensate for the woeful lack of transparency in law enforcement agencies.

The group relies on charitable donations to survive and operates out of a cramped, three-room office in central Moscow with a staff of 27 journalists, IT specialists and legal experts. On top of that, there is an army of about 100 volunteers who take turns to field calls from detainees and their loved ones on the 24/7 OVD-Info telephone and internet hotlines.

Fed-up police

Frolova, who oversees OVD-Info’s legal department, counts the group’s work over the past few weeks in “small victories” – locating detainees amid an information blackout at many police stations and persuading jailers to respect their charges’ right to use the telephone, meet lawyers and sit out their detention in non-smoking cells.

Many policemen have complained to her that they are fed up with processing the mass arrests. A few officers have said they are uncomfortable participating in such a draconian crackdown, but are wary of questioning the orders of their superiors.

There’s unlikely to be any let-up for police in the immediate future. Opposition activists are pledging to stage protests every weekend until the controversial September 8th Moscow city parliament election unless their candidates are admitted to the ballot.

From the outside it appears that the authorities have the upper hand in the stand-off and are unwilling to compromise. However, Frolova views the outlook as “totally unpredictable”.

The protests – which began as a dispute over seats in the politically toothless city legislature – are morphing into a broader popular movement for a free democratic Russia that could present a serious challenge to the nation’s rulers.

OVD-Info has been bombarded by calls from people offering to work as volunteers, and donations to the group’s crowdfunding site have soared. “These are signs that society is coming together,” she says. “Views are consolidating. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

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