MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police detained several dozen people at anti-Kremlin rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg on Monday as they tried to protest against limits to freedom of assembly.
A crowd of about 600 chanted “Freedom, Freedom!” in sub-zero temperatures on Moscow’s Triumph Square, heavily outnumbered by riot police, who dragged more than a dozen activists off to waiting buses after detaining them at a metro exit as they headed to the rally.
“This is our democracy. Look at what happens in Russia!” yelled one youth as black-helmeted OMON riot police arrested him.
Rights activists and Kremlin opponents have staged demonstrations on the square on the last day of each month with 31 days, in a symbolic reference to the right to free assembly enshrined under Article 31 of Russia’s constitution.
President Dmitry Medvedev has promised to allow more public criticism of the authorities since he was steered to power by his close ally Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, in 2008. But most opposition groups say little has changed and their activities are still restricted.
In St Petersburg, police said they had detained about 60 people at a rally in the heart of city where protestors cried: “We demand freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and an end to censorship.”
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who spent 15 days in jail after a New Year’s eve protest, rallied the Moscow crowd with calls for an end to Putin’s grip on power since he became president in 2000 and later prime minister.
“The rubbish tip of history awaits Putin just like all dictators,” he told Reuters, raising chants of “Putin resign” and “Russia without Putin.”
Moscow authorities gave permission for 1,000 people to gather, but in the past police have beaten or detained demonstrators they accused of infractions at such rallies.
Before the anti-Kremlin protests police detained 11 members of an opposition group in a weekend raid on their office and apartments, activists said.
Police linked the searches and arrests to an investigation into nationalist riots in December near Red Square, law enforcement sources cited by Kommersant newspaper said.
But members of the opposition Other Russia group said the arrests were intended to block their participation in the demonstrations on Triumph Square.
“It was clearly meant to pressure activist so that they don’t participate in today’s protests,” Other Russia activist Alexander Averin said, adding that three activists’ homes were searched.
Activists were detained and questioned overnight but had all been released by Monday morning, except for Belarusian citizen Igor Berezyuk, who was accused of involvement in violent racist rallies on December 11.
After last month’s riots by soccer fans and neo-nationalists who targeted non-Slavic minorities for attacks, a top Kremlin adviser blamed liberal freedom-of-assembly demonstrations he said served as an example to radical groups to take to streets.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by David Stamp