Image: Russian riot police
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Riot police arrest a protester in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday.
updated 3/3/2007 3:28:55 PM ET 2007-03-03T20:28:55

Police violently broke up an unauthorized opposition rally in Russia’s second-largest city Saturday, clubbing dozens of activists before dragging them into waiting buses.

Several thousand members of liberal and leftist groups chanted “Shame!” as they marched down St. Petersburg’s main avenue to protest what they said was Russia’s roll back from democracy. The demonstration, called the March of Those Who Disagree, was a rare gathering of the country’s beleaguered and often fractious opposition.

City authorities had banned the march, only granting permission for a rally far from the city center, but the activists defied the ban and marched down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main street, blocking traffic.

Riot police beat dozens of protesters with truncheons, but thousands broke through police cordons. They marched toward the city center and rallied for about 40 minutes until police moved in again, detaining people and dragging them into buses.

Several activists attacked a law enforcement officer. Between 20 and 30 people were detained, the ITAR-Tass reported, citing police officials.

Organizers claimed 6,000 people protested, though the crowd appeared to be about half that number. Among those detained were the head of the radical National Bolshevik Party and an independent city legislator.

The activists accused President Vladimir Putin’s government of cracking down on the opposition, stifling freedom of speech and eating away at democratic institutions by abolishing direct elections of regional leaders and creating an obedient parliament.

Russia’s sidelined and often divided opposition has faced increased harassment in recent years, with protest meetings barred on suspicious legal grounds or party congresses broken up or canceled for no reason. Putin’s policies have drawn criticism from the United States, straining ties between the two countries.

‘The possibility of voicing criticism’
The marchers held banners reading “Russia Without Putin” and “Get Elections Back.” They called for the ouster of mayor Valentina Matviyenko, a close Putin ally, accusing her of corruption and incompetence.

“The authorities are destroying ... the constitutional structure, rights and freedoms,” former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who now heads on opposition movement, told AP Television News. “Unfortunately, we are going through a very difficult time in our country, but we will continue to fight for our rights.”

Matviyenko, the mayor, dismissed the protest as a provocation, saying her city has always been famous for “solid democratic traditions.” “We must allow the possibility of voicing criticism of the authorities, but in a civilized form,” she was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

The protest took place before city legislative elections later this month in which the Yabloko party, one of the country’s two main liberal parties, was eliminated from the ballot for what it called groundless technical reasons.

The elections are seen as a precursor to December parliamentary balloting and the March 2008 presidential vote, in which Putin, who is barred from running for a third consecutive term, has strongly hinted he will choose a favored successor.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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