Keeping safe at a demonstration

Radio Echo Moskvy talks to the lawyer Ilya Novikov. How can we stay safe if we take part in a protest

<< No. 25 (258), 26 June 2017 >>

Radio Echo Moskvy (Olga Bychkova and Alexei Naryshkin) talks to the lawyer Ilya Novikov. How can we stay safe if we take part in a protest, or if we decide to stroll along Tverskaya Street in Moscow to participate in an event organised by Alexei Navalny: he did indeed refer to last Monday’s event as a pleasant stroll, rather than a visit to re-enactments of historical scenes, for example.

Olga Bychkova (Radio Echo Moskvy) ― We’d like to know more about how to behave and what to do to avoid getting into hot water if trouble breaks out, which after all often happens in the quietest and most peaceful of places.

Ilya Novikov – I’m going to start off by saying that there’s no guaranteed formula for success, because the one thing we learned from the events of 26 March is that the police had targets of some kind, and were aiming to detain around 1,000 people. They detained the appropriate number of people, and the way they did this made it clear that they weren’t particularly bothered whether anyone had done something to make him or her stand out from the crowd. There were noticeably more young men detained than middle-aged men or women and school-aged children, but that’s a general trend rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

Now we come to a vital point for anyone who is detained: under which article of the Code of Administrative Offences they have been detained, and which procedure is followed as a result. In all likelihood, the police will apply Article 20.2, which relates to infringements of the rules on the organisation of public events, or Article 19.3 which covers failure to follow lawful demands by police officers.

Alexei Naryshkin (Radio Echo Moskvy) – Infringements under Article 20.2 are generally given large fines, is that correct?

Ilya Novikov – Yes. Although each case is different in terms of sentencing and the possibility of jail. As a rule of thumb, detentions under Article 19.3 end in jail terms; those under Article 20.2 lead to a fine of 10,000 roubles or more.

There is something else we should remember, however. Fines are unpleasant and a fortnight in jail is even more so, but they’re not going to kill anyone. Yet the Investigative Committee has also been busy in the aftermath of 26 March. Criminal cases have already been opened against seven people who were arrested or detained and held in custody …

Alexei Naryshkin – Two have already been given terms of imprisonment.

Ilya Novikov –  Yes, they’ve already succeeded in handing down two sentences because the individuals in question agreed to the special simplified procedure.

Olga Bychkova – Were these people picked up the second time round, so to speak?

Ilya Novikov – Yes. From what we can see, the procedure they follow does not depend in the slightest on whether action has already been taken under administrative law. Some of the individuals in question were detained immediately and were handed straight over to the criminal investigation team; many returned home and perhaps paid a fine or perhaps had no punishments by the police at all, were arrested after a week or two, or three weeks or a month, on the basis of old video recordings of the events which apparently indicated that they had beaten up police officers.

The most important thing is therefore not to avoid getting into trouble in any way at all, because anyone who goes for a simple stroll in Russia – and not just Navalny – may find that happening to them.

It is most important to avoid having a criminal case opened against you, and there’s a very simple way to prevent this. If the police take you by the arm, act like a corpse and do not put up any resistance either verbally or physically. If you try to escape their clutches you are entering a lottery which may land you with a three or four-year term of imprisonment.

Olga Bychkova – And this lottery isn’t usually in our favour.

Ilya Novikov – Not for everyone. But even if you are unlucky and you have pressure put on you, the only advice a lawyer can give is: don’t sign anything or make any statements until your own lawyer has arrived, someone who has been invited to come by your family or friends…

Olga Bychkova – Article 51 of the Russian Constitution [the right to keep silent].

Ilya Novikov – That’s not exactly it. Article 51 concerns relatives, in fact. But a defendant or suspect can refuse to make a statement without explaining why. You can simply refuse to speak and that’s that.

Alexei Naryshkin – You’re listening to the lawyer Ilya Novikov on Echo Moskvy.

Let’s imagine you’re already in a police van and you’re taken to the police station. What rights does a detainee have? At what stage can you ask to make a phone call or at what stage can you refuse to comply if some of your personal effects are being confiscated? What’s the right way to behave?

Ilya Novikov – As I’ve already said, it’s better not to resist, because that could be written up afterwards as a criminal offence. That doesn’t often happen, but it does occur sometimes. You can use your phone, if only because phones aren’t confiscated from people who are being detained for administrative offences. As long as the battery in your phone is not dead – and incidentally, this is a reason to check that your phone is fully charged before you go anywhere – you are able to photograph any documents which you are issued. There’s very often an error in the initial report, and then it’s quietly replaced with another report.

Olga Bychkova – There’s been more than one case like that.

Ilya Novikov – Yes, that has happened, and on a large scale. As soon as you are given a sheet of paper, take a photo of it. You won’t be able to take a photo of police officers openly, but sometimes people manage to photograph them surreptitiously… I never suggest that people do that, but when that happens it does give the lawyer who is going to deal with your case, whether for an administrative or criminal offence, some interesting new material, because a photo of police officers is a treasure trove. When you can see in the video that a certain person is carrying out the detention, and then the report says that it was another person who looks nothing like the first…

Olga Bychkova – But it should be the same police officer.

Ilya Novikov – Yes, it should be the same one. If you do end up in a police van, it is essential to take that opportunity to get to know the interesting people in the van with you …

Alexei Naryshkin – Future witnesses, I suppose.

Ilya Novikov – Yes, so don’t ignore each other. Take each other’s phone numbers, set up a Telegram channel which…

Alexei Naryshkin – … will come in handy.

Ilya Novikov – Don’t lose sight of each other.

Alexei Naryshkin – Who’s the first person you should phone if you’re detained?

Ilya Novikov – Your relatives.

Olga Bychkova – While you’re still in the police van.

Ilya Novikov – Who else is going to help you out?

Olga Bychkova –  Phone your relatives from the police van, someone who will work out quickly what to do and who to phone.

Ilya Novikov – Yes. There are various phone numbers – OVD-Info and other organisations. But usually there is someone experienced in the van with you, someone who knows their number. And everyone should ring their own relatives, of course.

Olga Bychkova – Yes, they will already sort things out themselves once they are out of the police van, once they are no longer being detained. It will of course be easier for them to do that.

Ilya, many people are writing in to say that Navalny is inviting his supporters to take part in coordinated activities on Tverskaya Street today, for example. Or perhaps all it means is that there’s going to be a walk along Tverskaya. All kinds of public celebrations and events are due to take place there today. What’s your take on all of this? There’s always some kind of dispute between us and Alexei, and among our listeners.

Ilya Novikov – As a lawyer, I don’t have an opinion since, as I said at the very start, I see that people who are out for a walk are being detained without so much as a second thought, and yet the police write in their official reports that they were holding up placards, chanting, and so on. If the question is how to avoid any kind of trouble, then I have no useful advice to give.

From a purely technical standpoint, if a protest has already been agreed upon with the authorities, then, as a rule, initially the police will have orders not to carry out a wave of mass arrests but to ensure order. In that sense, of course, it’s likely there will be fewer arrests on Tverskaya today than on Sakharov Prospect where Alexei had originally planned to hold the event. It’s all an experiment, essentially. You will be the object, the guinea pig, and it’s only natural that if you feel strongly about being there, then you should go.

Alexei Naryshkin – One more question – probably the last. If I am taking part in the protest and I happen to witness an injustice. I want to protect and come to the aid of any woman, young girl or old lady who is being dragged along the ground… I want to put an end to – as I see it – this police rampage…Is it worth getting involved in the situation, to intervene to try to influence what these people in helmets are doing?

Ilya Novikov – Firstly, it’s likely that the more they are filmed, the less comfortable they’ll feel. A phone can be your greatest weapon. People who physically assaulted someone are the main contingent of those who were tried in the Bolotnaya Square cases, and in this ‘New Bolotnaya case’.

Olga Bychkova – Yes, that’s true. It’s those very people, as was later established, who tore off people’s buttons and epaulets.

Ilya Novikov – The most non-threatening thing you can do is not grab the police who are grabbing hold of someone to task, but instead hug the person they are trying to drag away and detain with both hands. This would be the least risky thing to do.

Olga Bychkova – Best to either reach for the guy who isn’t a police officer, or get hold of your mobile phone and record it all.

Ilya Novikov – Yes, exactly.

Olga Bychkova –  I see. Many thanks.

Alexei Naryshkin – The lawyer Ilya Novikov has been talking on Echo Moskvy, sharing his advice and ‘life-hacks’ on how to conduct oneself today – and in principle, at other public events – to avoid ending up in the back of a police van or face administrative or, in the worst-case scenario, criminal charges.

Translated by Nathalie Wilson and Suzanne Eade Roberts

Broadcast by Echo Moskvy radio station on 12 June 2017;
text posted by Moscow Helsinki Group on 12 June 2017