On March 21, 2020, police reportedly detained Mikhail Lobanov, a professor in the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University (MSU), for holding a peaceful demonstration on campus.
Lobanov held a “one-person picket” in front of one of MSU’s main buildings to show his support for MSU student-activist Azat Miftakhov, who has been in pre-trial detention since February 7, 2019, on allegations that he and others were involved in a January 2018 arson attack on the office of the ruling party, United Russia. Miftakhov was detained in connection with the alleged arson attack immediately after spending six days in detention on accusations that he was involved in efforts to make an improvised explosive device. Reports indicate that Miftakhov suffered torture during that initial period in detention. Miftakhov, who contends that police have targeted him for his anarchist views, is scheduled to remain in pre-trial detention until April 7, 2020. Lobanov has reportedly undertaken public advocacy on behalf of Miftakhov in the past.
During the protest, which took place on Miftakhov’s birthday, Lobanov reportedly held a sign that called for the student’s release and posed for photos. At least two sources suggest that other faculty and students were planning to picket at MSU that day; it is unclear whether they demonstrated at the same location or time as Lobanov. As soon as Lobanov began demonstrating, several police officers reportedly took him into custody and brought him to a police station. He was released that evening.
According to Lobanov, police later charged him with violating a federal law governing rallies. This, Lobanov told reporters, came after police reportedly attempted to charge him with violating a decree issued by Moscow’s mayor banning mass gatherings in order to combat the spread of a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. According to Lobanov, the police initially believed that the decree banned single-person pickets, but they then dropped this charge and accused him of violating an administrative regulation that establishes the process for organizing demonstrations. Two other individuals were reportedly arrested near the site of Lobanov’s protest; however, the bases for their arrests are unclear.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is a party. While state authorities have a right to maintain public order and security, they also have an obligation to refrain from restricting peaceful expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests intended to restrict peaceful expressive activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.