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Police beat Putin foes at rally

AP | April 16, 2007
Douglas Birch

MOSCOW — Riot police beat and detained protesters as thousands defied an official ban and attempted to stage a rally Saturday against President Vladimir V. Putin's government, which opponents accuse of rolling back freedoms Russians have enjoyed since the end of Soviet communism.

A similar march planned for today in St. Petersburg has also been banned by authorities.

A coalition of opposition groups organized the “Dissenters March” to protest the economic and social policies of Putin as well as a series of Kremlin actions that critics say has stripped Russians of many political rights. Organizers said about 2,000 demonstrators turned out.

Thousands of police officers massed to keep the demonstrators off landmark Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow, beating some and detaining many others, including Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who has emerged as the most prominent leader of the opposition alliance.

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Police said 170 people had been detained but a Kasparov aide, Marina Litvinovich, said as many as 600 were — although about half were released quickly. Kasparov, whom witnesses said was seized as he tried to lead a small group of demonstrators through lines of police ringing the square, was freed late Saturday after he was fined $38 for participating in the rally.

“It is no longer a country . . . where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law,” Kasparov said outside the court building, appearing unfazed by his detention.

“We now stand somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe,” he said.

It was the fourth time in recent months that anti-Putin demonstrations — all called Dissenters Marches — have been broken up with force or smothered by a huge police presence.

The weekend's marches were being closely watched as a barometer of how much of a threat, if any, opposition forces pose to the Kremlin as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next spring.

Putin, whose second and last term ends in 2008, has created an obedient parliament and his government has reasserted control over major television networks, giving little air time to critics.

TV newscasts Saturday reported the protests, but gave as much or more time to a pro- Kremlin youth rally held near Moscow State University.

Later, police charged into a crowd of about 200 demonstrators outside the police precinct where Kasparov was being held, beating protesters with nightsticks and fists.

Kasparov and his allies mustered, by their own reckoning, about 2,000 people — far fewer than the 30,000 people who patronize the McDonald's restaurant at Pushkin Square on an average day.

But some protesters said they were not discouraged by the small turnout or intimidated by the overwhelming force marshaled to block the rally.

Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin economic adviser who has become a Kremlin critic, pointed out that in 1968, only six people appeared in Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“This is a crime against the Russian constitution,” he said. “This country is not free anymore and the main criminal in Russia right now is the authorities.”

Organizers sought permission to gather on Pushkin Square, a traditional site for protests, but city officials rejected the request. Instead, they approved Turgenev Square, about a mile east and away from the city's commercial and cultural hub.

Organizers refused to cancel plans for the Pushkin Square rally and protesters started to arrive before 11 a.m. Police began seizing them a few at a time.

A 23-year-old woman, who gave her name only as Maria, said she and her husband, Andrei, were coming out of the subway when officers grabbed him.

“We didn't do anything,” she said, tears rolling down her face as she watched her husband being hustled into a police truck. “We just wanted to see what would happen.”

 

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