Anti-corruption protests took place in multiple Russian cities on Sunday. In many cases, the protests lacked official sanction, and thus ran afoul of the law. According to one press report:
Police arrested roughly 900 people in incidents during the weekend. … The Russian Civil Liberties Association denounced the mass arrests, saying they were illegal and unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable grounds to believe that everyone they detained had committed a crime or was about to do so.
“To us, it’s abhorrent that we would be arresting more than 900 people to find maybe 50 or 100 … vandals. This makes no sense. It’s a fundamental breach of Russian law to have done that,” said the organization’s general counsel.
… The arrest figure of more than 900 people includes only those who were taken to the detention centre, not those who were temporarily detained by police. Most people were released without being charged.
… Igor Ivanov, who said he’d been detained for about 18 hours, said he had just stopped by to check things out when he was arrested on Sunday.
Wearing dark jeans, a dark t-shirt and no shoes, Mr. Ivanov said he was arrested for obstruction of police, but that he was released without charge. He said he suspects he was arrested for wearing a bandana, but said it was on his head, not his face.
He described the inside of the detention centre as “cages” resembling animal kennels, fitting as many as 20 people into the larger ones.
A 15-year-old boy, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and cargo pants, said he was arrested Saturday night and held for 33 hours. The teen said that he was only there to watch the protest.
“They surrounded us and told us to leave,” he said, “but how was I supposed to read the situation?” He said police never once told them how to leave or when the last warning would be before arresting him. He was initially arrested for obstructing the police, he said, but released without being charged.
Questions were raised Monday about the way police handled a group of several hundred protesters and innocent bystanders at an intersection on Sunday evening. The group was boxed in by riot police for at least three hours in the soaking rain. After several were arrested, the rest were finally allowed to leave at about 10 p.m.
None of the above is true. I have switched the words Russia and Canada. The description is actually about the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. A subsequent official investigation into the events surrounding the Toronto protests concluded that the ‘police violated civil rights, detained people illegally, and used excessive force’. A disciplinary hearing also found the police officer in charge guilty of ‘discreditable conduct and unnecessary exercise of authority’.
As might be expected, the arrest of about 900 protestors in Moscow on Sunday is being used to paint the Russian authorities as particularly authoritarian. This accusation is missing the point. Mass arrests of protestors aren’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. New York police arrested 700 Occupy Wall Street protestors on Brooklyn Bridge in 2011. And in May 2012, police in Montreal arrested 500 people during student protests. Any powerful civil authority facing what it believes are illegal protests is likely to respond in such a manner. In this sense, the Russian example is not unusual.
The difference between Russia and countries like Canada lies in something else. The excessive use of police powers in Toronto led to an official investigation and a reprimand for the officer responsible. There was a system to hold the powers that be to account. By contrast, if any Russian police overstepped their authority on Sunday, it’s relatively unlikely that anybody will be able to do anything about it. Accountability is the bedrock of a democratic order, and the system of accountability in Russia is weak. This is a major failing and it cuts to the heart of Russia’s democratic deficit. But by themselves, the arrests of the protestors this Sunday prove very little.