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Moscow Protests Against Internet Bill
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Thousands of activists held protest actions across Russia against a new bill that its critics say is part of an effort by President Vladimir Putin's government to increase state control over the Internet and facilitate censorship.

Around 15,300 people gathered on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue on March 10 for a sanctioned rally against the proposed legislation, according to White Counter, an independent activist group that tracks turnout at demonstrations. Police put the figure at 6,500.

The participants chanted slogans such as "hands off the Internet" and "no to isolation," rejecting backers of the bill who say it is designed to ensure the operation of the Internet in the country if access to servers abroad is cut off.

OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors crackdowns on demonstrations, said that 29 people were detained before, during, and after the Moscow rally.

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Andrei Kiselyov was one of those detained by police.

Kiselyov took video from inside a police van after being detained along with 12 others. He was held by police for about five hours before being released late on March 10.

Dozens of protesters also rallied in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, while activists in St. Petersburg held so-called single pickets in order to comply with a Russian law against mass demonstrations that aren't authorized by authorities.

Protest actions were also held in the western city of Voronezh and other Russian cities.

Two supporters of the Libertarian Party were also briefly held in St. Petersburg, OVD-Info reported.

The so-called "sovereign Internet" bill, which passed in the first reading in the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament on February 12, faces two more votes in the State Duma before heading to the upper house.

Aleksandr Isavnin of the Roskomsvoboda movement, one of the organizers of the rally on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue, told RFE/RL: “Our state has paid attention to the fact that the Internet is being used to freely exchange information, including by opposition forces, and therefore it wants very much to put it under control.”

The name Roskomsvoboda is short for Russian Freedom Committee and plays off Roskomnadzor, the name of the state communications, Internet, and media oversight agency.

Nikolai Lyaskin, an aide to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, called the bill yet another step by the authorities to "tighten the screws" on Internet freedom, and urged the Russians to rally against “this madness.”

The bill reflects persistent tension between Russia and the West, where governments have accused Moscow of using cyberattacks and social-media activity to sow discord abroad and increase its global clout.

Proponents say it aims to make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet more independent, and argue that the legislation is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks.

The bill calls for the creation of a system that would protect Russia in the event of cyberwar while also filtering Internet traffic to the country, but there has been debate about how realistic that is and how much it would cost.

Serikzhan Bilash

ALMATY -- Security services in Kazakhstan have detained the leader of a group that has raised concerns over problems faced by ethnic Kazakhs in China.

A spokesman for the group, Volunteers of the Fatherland, told RFE/RL that Serikzhan Bilash was staying at an Almaty hotel when he was taken into custody at around 2:30 a.m. on March 10.

Bilash was later brought to the Department of Internal Affairs in the capital, Astana, said the spokesman, Kairat Baitullah.

Astana police confirmed the detention and said that Bilash was suspected of inciting "national discord or hatred.”

They did not provide details about the case.

Bilash, who was born in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, is a naturalized Kazakh citizen.

In recent months, he has organized several gatherings of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who settled in Kazakhstan and complained that their relatives were held in so-called reeducation camps in the Chinese region.

Bilash’s wife, Leila Adilzhan, told the AP news agency that she was “afraid” that the Kazakh government will hand him over to China.

Adilzhan also said that the Volunteers of the Fatherland’s offices were being searched.

Aiman Umarova, a lawyer advising the group, called the case "politically motivated."

"Bilash's arrest is connected with his actions against Chinese camps, and his support for Kazakh people and other Muslims in the camps," Umarova said.

"Our government doesn't want to spoil relations between Kazakhstan and China," she added.

In February, an Almaty court found Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization, and ordered him to pay a fine of 252,000 tenges ($670).

Bilash, who pleaded not guilty at his trial, said that Volunteers of the Fatherland has been active since spring 2017.

He also said that the group will continue to defend the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and that he will try again to register the group at the Justice Ministry.

The United Nations said in August last year that an estimated 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims from Xinjiang were being held in "counterextremism centers."

The UN also said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps.

China says that the facilities are not internment camps, but "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.

With reporting by AP

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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