Protesters get permission to seal their mouths from top Russian court

© Elnar Salahiev
The Russian Constitutional Court has ruled that the ban on masks at public rallies should not extend to cases when objects on protesters’ faces are used for propaganda purposes and do not seriously obstruct identification.

The court passed the ruling after a group of activists from the central Russian city of Samara filed a complaint over fines levied on them after the international ‘Day of Silence’ in mid-April this year. At this event, activists sealed their mouths with duct tape in protest at “silencing the crimes against sexual minorities and general discrimination against gays.”

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The existing Russian Law on Rallies forbids protesters from taking any measures to conceal their identity. Police asked the activists to remove the tape from their faces and identify themselves. The ‘Day of Silence’ participants complied, but nevertheless were fined 10,000 (about $154) each because they wore duct tape on their faces at the beginning of the rally.

In their appeal the protesters pointed out that the ban could be interpreted as a biased approach and a violation of the presumption of innocence. They wrote that people could wear things on their heads because of the chosen form of protest and even simply because of the weather conditions (one of the protesters at the Day of Silence was fined for wearing a hood).

The court agreed with this reasoning and ruled that rally-goers concealing parts of their faces does not necessarily mean their intention to obstruct their identification. It therefore allowed protesters to “wear means of propaganda” such as pictures, slogans, stickers and other things if this is not done with the purpose to prevent identification of the wearer.

The court also ruled that activists wear have hats, scarves, medical masks, respirators or bandages on their heads and faces if they can prove that there is a valid reason for this. The judge ordered the police to look deeply into every such case and banned fining people without proving their intent in obstructing identification.

The current Russian Law on Rallies was first introduced in 2004 and was seriously amended in 2012, shortly after large-scale and violent protests in Moscow against alleged violations at parliamentary elections. The amendments greatly increased the fines for violating the rally rules and for the first time banned protesters from wearing face masks or anything that could prevent their identification by law enforcers. The law requires any public protest save for single-person pickets to receive an official license from municipal authorities, but also allows for unlicensed rallies in dedicated places, which the mass media dubbed ‘Hyde Parks.’

READ MORE: Police want to broaden law on rallies, cover new forms of protest