The organizers of demonstrations should not be held culpable for the number of people who attend them, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday in a decision which could have implications for public order.
“An infringement of the number allowed is not a sufficient basis for placing responsibility with the organizers,” the court ruling said. “That basis occurs only when the number present is a threat to public order,” it adds.
The ruling also said a court must clearly establish an organizer’s guilt for the over-attendance. Likewise, the Constitutional Court said the organizers of public events must take due care about the potential number of participants, and consider the public’s attitude to the issues related to the event in question.
“Otherwise the authorities cannot judge the suitability of the intended place for the meeting and also take the necessary measures to guarantee public safety,” Judge Valery Zorkin said.
The court noted that the right to free assembly was not absolute, and could be limited by federal laws, but the authorities should strive to achieve a balance between the interests of the organizers on one hand and participants of mass meetings on the other.
Fines for Unsanctioned Demonstrations in Selected Countries
The court ruling comes as the State Duma postponed a debate on Friday over increasing the maximum fine for violations committed by protest participants to 900,000 rubles (about $30,000) from 100 rubles currently. The maximum fine for violations by protest organizers would rise to 1.5 million rubles.
The Duma is now expected to debate the bill on May 22.
The ruling United Russia faction introduced the bill, which would raise the maximum fines for unauthorized demonstrations from a mere 5,000 rubles ($160) to 1.5 million ($50,000) in the wake of disruptions that unsanctioned opposition protests caused to central Moscow residents in the past two weeks.
“Considering how crucial the bill is, I propose putting off the discussion of the issue until Tuesday,” Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin said, adding it would give lawmakers more time to hold consultations and prepare their suggestions.
He said all Duma factions were unanimous that the current law on demonstrations was imperfect and had to be amended, considering the protests in Moscow around President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration of May 7.
Now the postponement will have to be approved by the full Duma.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the left-wing opposition faction of the A Just Russia party, agreed with the speaker. “There will be no objections,” he said.
The three opposition factions in the lower house – the Communists, the Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia – had earlier expressed their opposition to the bill, threatening a walk-out if the bill is debated.
But, Andrei Vorobyov, Duma deputy speaker and leader of the United Russia faction, cited the examples of other countries that provide substantial fines for violations of protest laws.
“It is well known that our country has no problems with demonstrations but there is a serious flaw – there is no adequate punishment for violence, provocations and hooliganism at meetings,” Vorobyov said.
The current law provides a fine of 1,000-2,000 rubles for breaching the law on protests.
“Our legislation is not just liberal, it is excessively liberal,” Vorobyov said.
Public opinion on the bill is divided.
“This is why I think it deserves special attention,” Vorobyov said, calling to involve experts and public activists in the discussion.
“As for the fines, it is clear that they will be lower than the ones laid down in the bill,” he added.
An authorized opposition protest opposite the Kremlin on May turned violent after some protesters briefly broke through police lines in a bid to take their demonstration to the Kremlin walls. On Wednesday a Moscow court ordered an Occupy-style tent camp at Chistye Prudy dismantled after several residents complained about the unsanctioned protest.