Russian police on Saturday detained nearly 100 people attending a protest in Moscow to demand free elections, including prominent activist Lyubov Sobol, after the authorities warned the demonstration was illegal.
Police removed Sobol from a taxi and bundled her into a van minutes before the start of what anti-Kremlin activists described as a peaceful walk to protest against the exclusion of their candidates from an election next month.
Soon after the start of the protest, a Reuters reporter saw several hundred people milling around at one of the designated protest points in central Moscow. Minutes later, a line of riot police began to squeeze people out of the area.
OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group, said police had detained at least 89 people. Reuters reporters witnessed at least 10 arrests. Police said they had detained 30 people and 350 had attended the protest.
The focus of protesters’ anger is a prohibition on a number of opposition-minded candidates, some of whom are allies of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, from taking part in a September election for Moscow’s city legislature.
That vote, though local, is seen as a dry run for a national parliamentary election in 2021.
Authorities say opposition candidates failed to collect enough genuine signatures to register. The excluded candidates say that is a lie and insist on taking part in a contest they believe they could win.
At a similar protest a week earlier, police detained more than 1,000 people, sometimes violently, in one of the biggest security operations of recent years that brought widespread international condemnation.
Authorities carried out a new round of detentions and home searches before Saturday’s protest and opened criminal proceedings for what they term mass civil unrest, an offense which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail.
Activists say the Russian constitution allows them to freely protest. But authorities say they need to agree the timing and location of any demonstrations in advance, something that was not done ahead of Saturday’s protest.
Opposition activists say the authorities have repeatedly refused to allow protests in central Moscow, leaving them with no choice but to go ahead anyway.
At least eight of Sobol’s allies, including Navalny, are in jail for breaking tough protest laws. The ruling United Russia dominates the national parliament and Navalny plus his allies are starved of media air-time.
President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have not commented on the standoff, but Moscow prosecutors on Friday warned would-be protesters that Saturday’s demonstration had not been approved and its organizers could be brought to account.
The protest underlines the determination of Kremlin critics – especially younger people – to keep pressing to open Russia’s tightly-choreographed political system to competition.
At well over 60 percent, Putin’s approval rating is still high compared with many other world leaders, but is lower than it used to be due to discontent over years of falling incomes.
Last year the 66-year-old former KGB intelligence officer won a landslide re-election and a new six-year term until 2024.