MOSCOW Police detained dozens of anti-Kremlin protesters, including an 82-year-old Soviet-era dissident dressed as Santa Claus' female helper, at a New Year's Eve rally on Moscow's main shopping street on Thursday.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a recipient of the European Parliament's top rights award, was detained when she arrived at a Christmas tree in the center of the city where hundreds of police had gathered to prevent the unsanctioned rally.
The United States said it was concerned about the detention of the protesters "and reports of their mistreatment by authorities while in custody."
In a statement, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer expressed U.S. "dismay" and said: "Freedom of speech and assembly are universal rights that all governments should recognize and defend. The United States stands with those dedicated to promoting these human rights."
Russia resents U.S. criticism of its human rights record, a sensitive issue in a difficult bilateral relationship that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are trying to "reset."
Fellow rights activist Tatyana Lokshina said Alexeyeva was later released, but a spokesman for the Moscow police refused to comment on her detention.
"With acts of this kind, the Russian Federation violates human rights and its own constitution," said Sergei Nikitin, the head of rights group Amnesty International's Russian branch, quoted by Interfax news agency.
RIGHT TO PROTEST
A coalition of opposition groups organized the rally to defend their right to protest, as enshrined under Article 31 of the Russian constitution. Rallies are one of the few outlets for Russia's weak and fragmented opposition.
Police began to clear the protesters as soon as they arrived. A man dressed as Father Frost, Russia's equivalent of Santa Claus, was dragged through the snow to a waiting bus.
Alexeyeva, who was dressed as Snegurochka, Father Frost's female assistant, was escorted to a bus by riot police. "I don't know why I was detained... How could I possibly offer any resistance to anyone?" she said, quoted by Echo Moskvy radio.
Activists cried "shame" as police detained several elderly people. At least 50 people were detained, police said.
"Down with Putinism, Freedom to Russia," one protester shouted from the window of a bus being driven to a police station. The opposition says Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, led a major clampdown on civil liberties during his presidency from 2000-2008.
Moscow City Hall denied permission to hold the protest because it clashed with a rally by pro-Kremlin activists, who danced to holiday music as police made their arrests.
Pro-Kremlin group Young Russia said 70 of its activists had rallied against the opposition, whom they accuse of receiving funding from the West. "Bad Santa arrived from abroad to steal our holiday," the statement said.
With fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov, Alexeyeva founded Russia's oldest operating human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, to monitor the Soviet Union's adherence to human rights pledges made in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act agreement.
Earlier this year Alexeyeva and two other Russian rights activists were awarded the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament's top human rights award.
(Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)