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Russian police detain 130 in anti-government protests

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Police detained at least 130 protesters at New Year’s Eve rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg on Friday against restrictions on freedom of assembly and a court decision to keep former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail.

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A string of opposition leaders, heading a 1,500-strong protest in freezing weather in central Moscow, were among 70 people detained in the capital, an opposition website and non-state media said.

Opposition activists traditionally stage demonstrations on Triumph Square in central Moscow on the last day of each month with 31 days -- symbolizing the right to free assembly guaranteed under Article 31 of Russia’s constitution.

Activists, some wearing masks of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and holding posters reading “Putin is a bloodsucking insect,” protested against Thursday’s decision by a Moscow judge to keep Khodorkovsky in jail for six more years.

The former boss of the Yukos oil group was convicted of theft and money-laundering in his second trial, which was condemned in the West as politically motivated.

“We came here to bring officials to their senses. Yesterday they hugely disgraced Russia,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told reporters, referring to the sentencing.

Earlier on Friday Russia rejected sharp Western criticism of the ruling, saying foreign states had no right to try influence Russian courts. The United States said it was concerned that the Russian legal system had been abused.

“What liars they are, how corrupt they are... we have no justice,” Nemtsov said before being taken away by police.

Rights groups and Kremlin critics have been fighting a losing battle with authorities over the right to gather in public, and police routinely break up demonstrations. The United States has urged the Kremlin to respect the right to free assembly.

In St Petersburg, police said they detained around 60 people -- many dressed as Father Frost, a traditional festive character resembling Santa Claus -- who were protesting in the center of the former imperial capital.

Opposition leaders Ilya Yashin and Eduard Limonov were also detained on Friday, the opposition movement Solidarnost said on its website, with Limonov being taken away by police who came to his house before he had a chance to get to the rally. Interfax news agency said Limonov had been placed under arrest for 15 days.

Moscow authorities closed off Triumph Square in August to build a multi-level underground parking garage, in a move widely seen by activists as an attempt to prevent them from protesting.

In October Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shocked activists when he gave police the green light for crackdowns at demonstrations, saying people who protest without permission will be “hit on the head with batons.”

Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St Petersburg; Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Mark Trevelyan