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Hard knocks Moscow police arrested few demonstrators at last week’s Navalny protests, but now they’re coming for activists and journalists using facial recognition data

Source: Meduza
Igor Volkov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Protests in Moscow in support of imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny on April 21 ended relatively peacefully with just 60 or so arrests — far fewer than the 1,000 demonstrators police detained at similar rallies in January. A source close to the Russian government told Meduza that the decision to use minimal force against protesters in April was based on recommendations from the Kremlin. Another source close to the Putin administration confirms that the president’s advisers encouraged law enforcement to avoid a scene in Moscow that would displace news coverage of Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech, which took place hours earlier. An official in the Moscow Mayor’s Office confirmed these reports. Almost a week later, however, it’s become apparent that the authorities aren’t done policing the April 21 protests. Meduza explains how officials in Moscow and other cities are using new technologies to identify and intimidate the activists and even the journalists who attended the demonstrations.

According to Dmitry Piskunov, an attorney at the OVD-Info human rights project, law enforcement agencies are trying something new with the Navalny movement’s latest rallies, randomly targeting demonstrators, days after the protests ended. Piskunov says his legal team is already working with five individuals who were arrested following the demonstrations — one in Moscow, three in Nizhny Novgorod, and one in St. Petersburg. “They’re identifying people with facial recognition systems. Selective visits to random participants have an even grimmer and more demoralizing effect on the public than roughing up and arresting people at a protest,” explains Piskunov.

Russian police departments started experimenting with this tactic earlier this year, outside Moscow

Law enforcement in cities outside Moscow and St. Petersburg began using cameras with facial recognition to identify pro-Navalny demonstrators at rallies back in January, imposing fines on selected protesters and sending officers to visit the homes of other participants. In most of these cases, the police presented facial identification video footage as evidence that an individual joined an unlawful public assembly.

In Tomsk, for example, the police used this tactic after rallies on January 23 and 31. The local police arrested and fined about 50 people at these protests, but even more demonstrators ended up in jail in the days that followed. 

Andrey Serafimov, a freelance correspondent for Meduza, experienced these measures after reporting on the Navalny movement’s protest in Tomsk on January 31. Several weeks later, the police summoned him to discuss his supposed participation in an unlawful public assembly, despite the fact that he was there only as a journalist on an official assignment. The case materials against Serafimov included a black-and-white still image from police footage recorded at the protest. (In the end, no charges were filed, and the officers merely recorded Serafimov’s statement.)

In Novosibirsk, law enforcement started coming for Navalny’s activists just a few days after their protest on April 21. 

“I got a phone call from the police department on April 22 supposedly inviting me to give a statement, but really there were charges and the case was already open. The evidence included three videos from police cameras where they filmed the protest itself. The recording also featured the moment when officers warned everyone that it was an unlawful assembly,” Tatiana Pushkina, one of the demonstrators at the rally in Novosibirsk on April 21, told Meduza. A court later fined her 75,000 rubles ($1,000) for joining the protest (just half the statutory penalty, in light of Pushkina’s young dependent). 

This new approach to policing opposition rallies hasn’t yet spread to every city in Russia. So far, the tactic appears to be limited by the distribution of facial recognition systems. For example, in the Kemerovo region, which borders Tomsk, the authorities arrested no demonstrators after January’s protests ended. 

After studying their footage from Moscow’s April 21 protest, police officers also came to the home of Anna Borzenko, a teacher and the mother of former Meduza journalist Alexander Borzenko.

Moscow police rely on identification data collected by cameras under the control of the city’s Information Technology Department, an agency that had at its disposal more than 100,000 surveillance cameras throughout the capital, roughly a year ago. Since then, federal security officials have grown increasingly interested in video footage from protests, a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza

The police are knocking on journalists’ doors, too

The authorities have also visited several reporters at home, accusing them of participating in an unlawful assembly. On April 27, an officer named Evgeny Reshetnyak came to the apartment of Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova, who covered the April 21 demonstration in Moscow. The officer admitted to Safonova that he didn’t know why he’d been sent to knock on her door. After telephoning his superiors, he told her to expect a call from the police. Officials at Moscow’s Molzhaninovsky District Police Department later contacted Safonova and asked her to share documents proving that she attended the April 21 protest as a journalist. They also asked her to report the following day for further questions about last week’s demonstration. Afterward, Safonova was handed another summons in connection with misdemeanor charges that she violated Russia’s laws on public assemblies.

Hours earlier, police officers visited the homes of Dozhd correspondent Alexey Korostelev and Ekho Moskvy journalist Oleg Ovcharenko, who also reported from Moscow’s April 21 protest.

The authorities accused Ovcharenko of covering the demonstration without his press credentials, though Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov has made it clear that his radio station sent Ovcharenko to cover the protest. 

Meanwhile, officers filed a report against Korostelev for allegedly joining last week’s demonstrators. The police presented him with a video that supposedly shows him chanting together with Navalny’s activists, though he says it’s not him in the footage. Editors at Dozhd say Korostelev was at the rally on an official assignment, with his press credentials and wearing a special vest that identified him as a member of the press. Officers nevertheless brought Korostelev in for questioning. He’s required to report for further interrogation on April 30.

The police also reportedly came to the home of reporter Alexander Rogoza, who covered last week’s demonstration for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. According to colleague and war correspondent Alexander Kots, officers arrived at Rogoza’s apartment and brought him in for questioning. “Apparently, he ended up on camera somewhere and they identified him. At the station, they were pretty surprised that he’s a journalist. They took his statement, recorded his editorial assignment and the documents confirming his work, and sent him on his merry way. But this is obviously a story first and foremost about technology. The future is already here,” Kots wrote on his Telegram channel.

Meet the new tactics, same as the old tactics

OVD-Info lawyer Dmitry Piskunov thinks police departments may have decided to change their approach to unpermitted protests when mass arrests at the Navalny movement’s last demonstrations led to overcrowding at detention centers. 

In Moscow, after the jails ran out of room, the authorities started bringing detainees to a migrant deportation center in the town of Sakharovo, outside Moscow. At first, there were so many people that buses packed with prisoners were left idling for hours in the cold. The police arrested more protesters than they could process. There weren’t enough basic supplies, like toilet paper, dishes, and mattresses, and officials loaded as many as 28 detainees into cells meant for eight. The demonstrators brought to Sakharovo say they were threatened, beaten, and held in custody too long.


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Why are the toilets in Russian jails such shit? Human rights activists have spent 30 years fighting for better privacy and cleaner facilities, but ‘holes in the floor’ persist

The policing debacle became a symbol of the city’s inhumane treatment of opposition activists.

It’s possible, however, that this bad press didn’t really bother the authorities. A source close to Russia’s anti-extremism police force told Meduza that officers’ marching orders ahead of the April 21 demonstrations were no different than before: “Actually, they’re always instructed ahead of mass public events to act as civilly as possible. When there are serious violations, they shut them down and arrest the troublemakers. Nobody threw rocks at the riot police this time. They arrested a few instigators and that was it. The rest of them, the most active ones, will be identified on cameras and issued a fine.”

Asked about the police visits to journalists, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that officers are responding to an unspecified “outrageous act,” presumably referring to a report by the state news agency RIA Novosti that Denis Kabakov, the Navalny campaign’s local coordinator in St. Petersburg, was arrested with press credentials from the television network Dozhd while wearing a press vest.

Who’s running the show here?

A funny thing happened about a month before last week’s protest in Moscow: Alexey Diokin took over as the key law enforcement official responsible for coordinating detainee transfers, operating special detention centers, and policing mass public events, as well as general “crime prevention.” A former Moscow traffic police deputy chief, Diokin was tapped to head the city’s Public Order Protection Department in a presidential appointment signed on March 18. (The Kremlin never published this executive order, but the Moscow Interior Ministry’s website mentions it and the newspaper Kommersant wrote about it here.)

Before his new assignment, Alexey Diokin served more than 20 years in various divisions of Moscow’s traffic police, performing organizational and analytical work. In May 2016, he became the department’s deputy chief — a role that would later require him to help manage the digital-pass entry system Moscow introduced at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Diokin’s predecessor, Andrey Zakharov, held the position for about four years, winning several promotions (including a general’s rank) before he was ousted in a scandal involving his subordinates. Last December, a Moscow judge placed two of these officials under house arrest after they reportedly confessed to accepting hundreds of thousands of rubles in bribes to close down multiple busy streets in the capital to allow the filming of a miniseries about the Soviet serial killer Andrey Chikatilo. Investigators collected evidence suggesting that the scheme also relied on the cooperation of “unidentified officials in the Moscow Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate.”

But Alexey Diokin’s new job might not be as powerful as it seems. A source who participated in police fieldwork at mass demonstrations in Moscow throughout the 2010s told Meduza that the head of the Public Order Protection Department can’t act independently when it comes to protests. Decision-making on demonstration days, says Meduza’s source, is concentrated at the city’s command center, which coordinates all units on duty — even the officers brought in from other regions.

Moscow’s command center includes senior representatives of the Interior Ministry, the National Guard, the Mayor’s Office, and the Federal Security Service’s special department devoted to “constitutional order” threats. Diokin contributes to the command center’s work, too, but control of the group essentially belongs to the deputy chief of the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate.

“It’s a mistake to think that [Kremlin deputy chief of staff Sergey] Kiriyenko or the [interior] minister is giving orders to the command center about what the riot police should do. The orders are always the same: act according to the situation,” says Meduza’s source. “In any particular place, the governor is responsible for this situation, so naturally the approaches in Dagestan and Khabarovsk will be different. The same goes for Moscow and St. Petersburg.”

Story by Maxim Solopov, with additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter and Andrey Serafimov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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