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Russia: Opposition Rallies Met With Massive Police Force

Security forces detain a protester (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, April 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Rallies in St. Petersburg and Moscow saw some of the largest displays of police force used against the political opposition since President Vladimir Putin took office seven years ago.

Thousands of police officers and OMON special forces were deployed from throughout Russia to disperse the March of Dissent rallies held in Moscow on April 14 and St. Petersburg on March 15.

In Moscow, 9,000 police and OMON troops were present -- outnumbering by far the estimated 2,000 protesters who turned out.

Police said that in St. Petersburg 120 protesters were detained and in Moscow, around 170 people. Most of those detained paid small fines and were subsequently released.

Protesters Speak Out

One of the Moscow protesters, Ramil Sadykhov, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he and his fellow detainees felt constantly under threat while in police custody.

"While I was detained I was sitting next to a man who told me he’d just gone to buy a theater ticket. He said he had nothing to do with the rally," Sadykhov said.

"But they’d arrested him and thrown him onto a bus. They didn’t tell him anything, they just said something like: 'You’d better sit quietly or you know what’s coming.' There was a constant display of violence in the police station."

'I was sitting next to a man who told me he’d just gone to buy a theater ticket. He said he had nothing to do with the rally.'

Sergei Gulyaev, who participated in the St. Petersburg March of Dissent rally, said the OMON forces made it clear early on that the protests would not go off unchallenged.

"On Pioneers' Square, where we had wanted to convene, there were a whole load of OMON from Tverskoi Oblast. They spent a whole day and night there, sleeping on their buses," Gulyaev said.

"The following day they were ready for the protesters. They prevented them from getting through so that they couldn’t gather in any sort of numbers."

One of those detained was former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a leader of the Other Russia opposition movement. He told Reuters on April 15 that the government's reaction was quite harsh.

"People should recognize that further actions may end up with even more government crackdowns. But I have no doubt that the street protests will continue and the protest will rise because people recognize there is no other way out," Kasparov said.


Opposition leaders have warned that harsh police tactics will turn people against Putin's regime.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko today ordered law enforcement organs to "thoroughly" verify complaints of beatings and rights violations during the protests. She said measures must be taken to curb these violations if the complaints are confirmed.

Pushkin Square, Moscow, April 14 (RFE/RL)

Russia's ombudsman for human rights, Vladimir Lukin, said he is ready to consider the complaints from people who have complained of ill-treatment.

International Concern

European Union officials today voiced concern over the police response to the rallies.

EU spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann said foreign ministers would raise the issue at talks with their Russian counterparts in Luxembourg next week.

U.S. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Bush administration was "deeply disturbed" by the developments in Russia, which she described as "an emerging pattern of use of excessive force" by the authorities. She added that it was "intolerable that journalists were detained."

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko today ordered law-enforcement organs to "thoroughly" verify reports of police abuse during the St. Petersburg rally.

Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said he was willing to look into complaints filed by demonstrators.

He said his impression from watching television reports was that some law-enforcement officials had "seriously" exceeded their authority.

The protests came after comments last week from London-based Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, in which he said he is plotting to use "undemocratic" means to overthrow the regime of President Vladimir Putin.

And last week, Russia rejected U.S. criticism of its rights record. Russian lawmakers passed a resolution rejecting as "unacceptable" the recent negative assessments of Russian human-rights standards in a U.S. State Department report. The lawmakers also accused the United States of meddling in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Little Television Coverage

Most Russians, with the exception of those that witnessed the protests, will know little about this weekend's events.

State-controlled television channels showed only brief pictures of the protests.

What Russian viewers got instead was footage of Putin meeting film star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Italy's former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

The men were in St. Petersburg to watch a martial-arts spectacle, titled "Russia versus America."

As one Russian fighter knocked out an American fighter -- in a mixed fighting style known as "boi bez pravil," or fight without rules -- cameras showed President Putin nodding in approval.




By Maria Klein, director, RFE/RL Russian Service

If you watched Russian television, it was as though the rallies hadn't taken place.
On Saturday evening (April 14), following the Moscow protest, the main channels had literally no coverage. By Sunday (April 15), the television networks showed very brief footage from the March of Dissent rallies, but it was impossible to get an accurate sense of their size or even the message of the protesters.
Actually, they did report about rallies -- but not the March of Dissent rallies. Instead, they reported that 15,000 pro-Kremlin young people had gathered near Moscow State University. These demonstrators were brought in on trains and planes -- many of them didn't even know what they were doing there. But the television programs I saw simply stressed how wonderful it was that so many of them had converged on Moscow.
These programs also featured claims that the United States was meddling in Russia's internal affairs. One such report focused on how the United States was financing nongovernmental organizations in Russia, and how that funding was part of a U.S. plan to influence the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
The commentators discussed how much money they believed the United States had spent funding "colored revolutions" in the former Soviet Union. News programs also featured exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky's interview in "The Guardian," in which he talked about removing the current regime using "undemocratic" means.
And what figured most prominently was coverage of a martial-arts and wrestling event in St. Petersburg, which President Putin had attended. The competition, which featured no-rules wrestling, pitted Russians against Americans. These strong, massively built men were shown on television telling the president that they had fought the American team and won. They were proud, they said, and Russia was a force to be reckoned with.
That's the message you get from Russian television news today -- from Putin's speech in Munich to these wrestlers in St. Petersburg. Russia is a force to be reckoned with.

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