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HRW Warns Against New Russian Move To Crack Down On Freedom Of Expression, Assembly

People attend a protest against the construction of a waste dump in Arkhangelsk, northwestern Russia on April 7.

The Russian government is developing a draft law that will "further jeopardize" freedom of expression and assembly in the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

The bill, if adopted, would enable the authorities to "freeze the bank accounts of people who donate to or finance protests that are deemed unlawful," the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on April 15.

The provision on financing public assemblies is one of several amendments being considered in a bill to prevent and address the financing of terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

HRW said that the provision had the "insidious effect of placing the financing of unauthorized demonstrations in the same category as these other forms of serious criminal activity."

Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at HRW, urged Russia to immediately drop the provision from the bill, "On amendments to laws of the Russian Federation concerning the financing of terrorism and other illegal activities," saying that it would enable the government "even to target and intimidate someone who paid for some flyers or protest signs."

In recent years, the government "has created new obstacles to the exercise of free expression and assembly and has pushed peaceful protesters to the margins of the law," HRW said in its statement.

It cited a law on public assemblies that requires protesters to seek authorization for public assemblies and enables the authorities to "routinely deny requests for authorization on a plethora of grounds."

"Police routinely disperse authorized and 'unauthorized' protests and detain, beat, harass, fine, and intimidate peaceful protesters," the watchdog said.

It added that posting information online about upcoming, unauthorized public gatherings may also result in detention, and repeated violations can lead to a prison sentence.

Last month, an 18-year-old Russian activist became the first person punished under a new law that prohibits adults from encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized protests.

"As public discontent over the government's economic, social, and political agenda grows, authorities need to stop looking for ways to stamp down the public, and look for ways to listen to what protesters are saying," Aitkhozhina said.

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