Riot police wielding truncheons broke up an opposition rally in a central Russian city on Saturday, detaining dozens of activists and beating some of them in the third major crackdown on a demonstration in recent months.
The activists focused on local issues but also accused the Kremlin of stifling free speech, silencing dissent and depriving them of a free and fair political process ahead of December parliamentary elections and next year’s presidential vote.
Authorities had not given permission for the rally in a central square in Nizhny Novgorod, saying a demonstration could only take place far from the city center. Hundreds of riot police in full gear cordoned off the central square.
Still, organizer Natalya Morar said, several hundred protesters managed to hold a short rally — dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree — near the central square until police dragged them into buses that took them to police stations.
Reports of violence
An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of protesters taken into custody by police and some beaten with truncheons. The photographer was briefly detained by officers, who later released him, saying there had been a mistake.
President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, has given strong hints that he would pick a favored successor. Opposition groups have accused the Kremlin of further consolidating control over the country’s political life ahead of elections to make sure its opponents stand no chance of winning.
State-controlled television channels made no mention of the rally in their newscasts throughout the day.
Oksana Chelysheva, another organizer and rights activist, said her group had received complaints from hundreds of people heading to the rally who said they were blocked by police from entering the city center.
Morar said hundreds of activists had been pulled off trains and buses and detained on their way to the rally.
She said several dozen journalists, including foreign reporters, were also detained.
Among those arrested was Marina Litvinovich, an aide to liberal opposition figure Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned fierce critic of Putin.
Litvinovich told The Associated Press that she was detained, to prevent her from protesting, as she was driving into the city, on the grounds that her personal car was on a list of stolen vehicles. She was released several hours later, only to be arrested a second time for the same purported reason.
Morar said two other organizers detained ahead of the rally were in custody on suspicion of terrorist activity. She said they have been accused of distributing pamphlets with instructions on how to become a terrorist.
Regional police spokesman Alexander Gorbatov said that only about 30 people had been detained for holding an unauthorized protest.
It was unclear what would happen to the protesters who were detained. Under Russian law, police can hold suspects for up to 3 days, after which they must either be released or a court must sanction their arrest for a longer period of time, pending investigation.
Officials implicate U.S., Europeans
The local news agency, Nizhny Novgorod, cited deputy governor Sergei Potapov as saying protesters were receiving funding from the United States and several European countries.
“They are looking for pretexts for discontent for money,” Potapov was quoted as saying.
Organizers denied the allegations.
“The authorities are afraid of people, they feel highly insecure,” Chelysheva said. “They fear that people will express their discontent” during elections.
The rally in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, was the third such protest in recent months. While the first was allowed to take place in Moscow in December, police detained dozens of participants before and during the rally, according to organizers. Protesters then gathered for a second March of Those Who Disagree earlier this month in Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, but the rally was violently broken up by police.
Since taking office in 2000, Putin has made steps to centralize power and eliminate democratic checks and balances. He has created an obedient parliament, abolished direct gubernatorial elections, tightened restrictions on rights groups and presided over the reining-in of non-state television channels.