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Vigil For Russia Activist Ends In Clashes, Arrest

Estemirova was killed in Ingushetia
MOSCOW (Reuters) --- A vigil to mourn the murder of Russian activist Natalya Estemirova ended in a clash with police and its 70-year-old organizer was detained.

Following Russian Orthodox tradition, the vigil was held nine days after Estimorova's murder, bringing around 150 people on to Moscow's Pushkin Square on the evening of July 23, several times more than city officials had allowed.

When all but 20 of the mourners had dispersed, about a dozen police officers moved in to arrest Viktor Sotirko, the Memorial activist who had organized the event, according to a Reuters witness.

"I asked them: 'Why? When our activist has died, when the government has been accused, why aggravate the situation with arrests?'" Sotirko told Reuters on July 24. Estemirova worked for rights group Memorial in Russia's turbulent Chechnya region.

A police spokesman said 30 people had been sanctioned to gather for the event but far more had shown up, prompting the detention of the organizer. He declined to comment further or to give his name.

The other demonstrators reacted angrily to the arrest, crowding the officers and shouting at them as they shoved Sotirko into a police van. Sotirko said he was held for two hours and charged with disturbing the peace.

Estemirova was shot in the head on July 15 as she left home and her body was dumped on the roadside in neighboring Ingushetia.

Memorial has accused Chechnya's strongman president Ramzan Kadyrov of ordering Estemirova's killing, an allegation he has denied. She is the latest in a series of Kadyrov's critics and enemies to be murdered in the past two years.

Police generally outnumber protesters on the streets of Moscow by a wide margin, and beatings and mass arrests are the norm at opposition protests. But this time no reinforcements came after the clash and no one else was arrested.

Many of the demonstrators later met at Memorial to remember Estemirova's life. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest NGO, called her a crusader against intimidation.

"The fear that permeates people in Chechnya is as deep as that felt in Stalin's days when people were afraid to say a word even to loved ones," she said. "Natasha fought against that."