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European rights court slams Russian protest rules

The judges sided with Naylya Ibragimova, who was cited for wearing a face covering during a one-woman protest over the trial of protest punk band Pussy Riot in 2012.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court on Tuesday sided with a woman who wore a knitted balaclava to a protest, calling Moscow’s enforcement of face covering rules part of a campaign to scare the opposition. 

Russia violated Naylya Ibragimova’s right to freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled, when authorities charged her with an administrative offense and fined her 10,000 Russian rubles ($163) for wearing a green knit ski mask during a protest. 

Ibragimova wore the face covering while staging a one-woman protest denouncing the trial of the protest punk band Pussy Riot, known for wearing similar masks, in 2012. The girl group was imprisoned after a highly publicized and unauthorized performance inside a Moscow cathedral that year. In a 2018 decision, the ECHR found Russia violated the band members' human rights. 

The now 34-year-old Ibragimova held a sign that read “Don’t extend your hand to someone else’s fate. Free Pussy Riot” during her solo rally in the northwestern port city of Murmansk. Ibragimova was not attempting to conceal her identity - she spoke to journalists and removed the balaclava before leaving Five Corners Square after an hour. Nearby police officers never attempted to intervene. 

She was charged a month later after several articles about her protest appeared on local news websites. Ibragimova contested the charges but ultimately lost before Russia’s Constitutional Court. Under the Public Events Act, protesters in Russia are forbidden from wearing masks or disguises. 

Moscow argued there had been no violation of Ibragimova's right to express herself, as she had been allowed to complete her protest and other European countries have also outlawed face coverings during demonstrations. 

Under the European Convention of Human Rights, which created the Strasbourg-based rights court in 1959, Europeans are entitled to freedom of expression. In its ruling Tuesday, the court criticized the Russian court for failing to consider the broader context of Ibragimova’s offense. It “did not explore in a meaningful manner whether there had been any intent or conduct preventing the applicant’s identification during her demonstration,” the ECHR's Third Section wrote. 

The seven-judge panel found that since 2012, fines for administrative offenses at protests had increased ten-fold and this had a “chilling effect” on legitimate protest. Russia lost another pair of cases for prosecuting protesters in 2019, when the ECHR sided with two men who organized a rally against President Vladimir Putin's return to office for a third term. 

The court awarded Ibragimova 242 euros ($242), the equivalent of the fine she was forced to pay in 2012, as well as 7,500 euros ($7,501) for non-monetary damages.

In an unrelated case on Tuesday, the ECHR also sided against Russia for seizing a laptop and hard drives belonging to journalist Sergey Sorokin, who had published a story about a high-ranking police officer abusing the power of his office in 2008 and was subsequently investigated for disclosing state secrets. 

Sorokin’s apartment was searched and police confiscated his computer, four hard drives and an audio cassette. Ultimately, the charges against him were dropped but he argued the search was illegal and the case violated his right to a fair trial. 

The ECHR awarded Sorokin 13,500 euros ($13,531) in total. 

Moscow withdrew from the Council of Europe, the body which oversees the court and the convention, in March. The council had already voted to expel Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Cases pending before the court involving Russia will still be completed. 

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