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On the Brink of Extinction in Russia

16/04/2014 16:57 BST | Updated 16/06/2014 10:59 BST

The humble placard: the activist's best friend. One sad by-product of the recent crackdown on free speech in Russia is the demise of the slogan-on-a-stick.

Last week, for example, a small group of protesters holding invisible placards was broken up and carted off to a Moscow police station. Even with the extreme downsizing of their signs, the police clearly believed the message the protesters carried posed a threat to public order. They were merely trying to remind passers-by that other peaceful protesters at a state-sanctioned rally in nearby Bolotnaya Square a couple of years ago are still being punished - like Mikhail Kosenko, now locked in a psychiatric unit.

Placards have disappeared from view at many Russian protests in the past couple of years: unveiling one has the potential to get you instantly picked up by the police. The message you're carrying is irrelevant; placards, with their political history, will not be tolerated - as illustrated by the mass detention of a group of people in Moscow in June 2012 for carrying signs with absurd messages asking for another weather system, for English to be replaced with Japanese, and for 'LSD, people, order'. Presumably there are no golf sales in Russia and pizza chains market by other means.

Freedom of assembly? Nyet.

In the last couple of years, Putin's government has repeatedly revised and tweaked federal laws on assembly so that, incrementally, rights to speak out in public have been slimmed to near non-existence.

Right now, a protest may take place if a request is lodged with officials between 15 and 10 days in advance. You may protest in specially designated areas without prior authorisation if you have more than 100 but less than 2,000 people within the designated zone. And if a Westerly wind is blowing on a Tuesday, you may use a whistle (just kidding).

That's the Russia-wide law; there are additional regional rules governing location and size of demonstrations that vary from place to place. Even if you organise a protest to the letter of these cryptic instructions, you could still face arbitrary punishment: the demonstrations in Bolotnaya Square two years ago were authorised by all the right people and given police protection, yet peaceful protesters like Mikhail were still imprisoned.

Making street protest a crime

The rare placard is set to become an even scarcer sight, as Russia's parliament considers a draft law that intends to make joining an unsanctioned street protest a criminal offence.

Existing restrictions on protests are not enough for politicians who have proposed 'improvements to the legislation on public gatherings' that will see those found guilty of attending multiple unauthorised protests classed and punished as criminals.

How is it possible to further restrict those pesky persistent protesters determined to turn up and demonstrate empty-handed? You lock them up.

Attend even an authorised protest now as a layperson and you could easily be detained for a couple of weeks, fined or dealt community service. But if the proposed amendment - sorry, 'improvement' - is voted through by parliament, protesters will be subject to a 'three strikes and you're in jail' rule for demonstrating within a six-month period.

Strike one: Have 30 days detention and community service and/or a fine. Learn not to protest.

Strike two: Back again? Ok, the fines increase. Stop protesting.

Strike three: You're still going? Go to jail for up to five years without passing Go. Do not collect £200. In fact, give us £200.

If the law is passed it will violate Russia's Constitution, which guarantees free speech and freedom of peaceful assembly for all Russians - plus various binding international human rights treaties the country is signatory to (reinforcing guarantees to rights to freedom of expression and assembly for its citizens).

It gets worse

Who protests on behalf of the protesters? Often it's civil rights organisations. But another placard was chucked in Russia's overflowing human rights skip last week as a St Petersburg court forced a prominent human rights group to shut down. Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial (ADC Memorial), when it was allowed to operate, defended victims of racism and xenophobia.

It's the latest victim of Putin's 2012 'Foreign Agents Law' which requires international non-governmental organisations who work 'politically' to register as foreign agents and undergo surveillance that limits their work, or face large fines and closure. Russian authorities have used the law to shut down numerous NGOs in the last year.

An authorised anti-war protest did take place in Moscow last month as Crimea became Russian, although it coincided with the Kremlin shutting down numerous websites for criticising Putin. One of them, the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, allegedly violated the conditions of his house arrest (five years); the others apparently encouraged civil disobedience.

With rights groups shut down, opposition activists shut away and those attending public gatherings and protests potentially criminalised, Putin's government is overseeing a human rights dark age for Russians - no matter what message their placard bears.

Find out how to take action to stop the proposed law on Amnesty's site