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Hundreds Detained As Moscow Stages 'Largest Opposition Protest Since 2011'

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Dozens Detained In Moscow Following Opposition Protest
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MOSCOW -- Police in Moscow have detained more than 250 people following an opposition protest that drew tens of thousands of supporters demanding fair elections, independent monitors say.

Up to 60,000 people on August 10 rallied outside the center of the Russian capital to demand that officials allow independent candidates on the ballot in an upcoming municipal vote, the independent monitoring group White Counter said, making it the largest since anti-government demonstrations in 2011.

Police put the figure at around 20,000.

The demonstration was officially authorized. But hundreds of people later gathered in other parts of the city, many in an area near the Russian presidential administration, prompting helmeted police to detain 256 people, the independent political watchdog OVD-Info reported.

Moscow police has said just 136 people had been held for "various violations during an unauthorized demonstration in central Moscow."

OVD-Info said 79 people were also detained in St. Petersburg, 13 in Rostov-on-Don, two in Bryansk, and two more in Syktyvkar as "solidarity" rallies attracted smaller crowds there and in other cities, including Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok, and Krasnodar.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Yekaterinburg, chanting "down with the tsar" and other antigovernment slogans.

During two previous, unsanctioned rallies in Moscow -- on July 27 and August 3 -- police beat protesters with batons and detained more than 2,300 people, sparking condemnation from rights groups and Western governments.

But Russian authorities have toughened their treatment of the candidates who had been banned from running in the September municipal elections.

On August 10, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the rain for the authorized protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue -- not a major thoroughfare and not the more central location organizers had wanted.

Participants chanted slogans against Russian President Vladimir Putin and "the chekist state," a reference to the notorious Soviet secret police.

The area was cordoned off police and riot vans in anticipation of a possible march by participants through the city center following the event.

But hours after the demonstration concluded several kilometers away, pockets of protesters appeared in central Moscow chanting "Putin is a thief!" and "Russia will be free!"

Live footage showed a succession of people being taken away by helmeted police at an area closer to the presidential administration headquarters.

Russian National Guardsmen detain a man following a rally calling for fair elections in central Moscow on August 10.
Russian National Guardsmen detain a man following a rally calling for fair elections in central Moscow on August 10.

"We went for a stroll after the demonstration. I ate at McDonald's, went for a walk, and they detained me," a man who was detained told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

The man insisted he had not held a placard or chanted any slogans.

The authorities had previously warned of possible "criminal liability" for "peaceful walks" after the authorized rally.

"I'm very happy people continue to come out despite all of the beatings and the arrests," Maria Alyokhina, an activist with the opposition punk collective Pussy Riot, told Current Time.

Prominent opposition figure Lyubov Sobol was unable to attend after authorities raided her election headquarters ahead of the rally. Sobol, one of several opposition candidates who was not allowed on the ballot, posted a video on Twitter showing armed, masked men barging in.

Masked Men Raid Office Of Russian Opposition Leader Sobol
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Hours later, Sobol was frog-marched out of the building and whisked away by masked police in a waiting van.

Masked Police Detain Russian Opposition Leader Sobol
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Journalists from Current Time were with Sobol inside the office at the time of the raid. One of the journalists, Timur Olevsky, said the raid was connected with a criminal case related to the alleged "mass civil unrest" but that it was unclear whether Sobol is considered a witness or suspect in the case.

Olevsky said he and others were barricaded inside the office for around three hours while a team of around 20 law enforcement agents conducted a search, removing campaign materials and other items.

Eleven Russians face criminal probes over what authorities have called "mass civil unrest," a charge that can result in a lengthy jail sentence.

Speakers at the August 10 demonstration called on the authorities to release those accused in the case and drop the charges against them. ​

Thousands Gather In Moscow For Sanctioned Opposition Protest
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Unlike the past two weekend rallies, organizers of the August 10 demonstration received approval from city officials, just as they had for a July 20 rally.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused outside forces, including the U.S. Embassy and a German broadcaster, of stirring up support for the protests.

The string of rallies was sparked by local officials' decision in early July to bar dozens of independent candidates from elections to the Moscow City Duma, claiming their signature lists were insufficient to get them on the ballot.

The opposition says Moscow authorities merely want to deny them the chance to take on pro-Kremlin candidates.

The 45-seat city duma is responsible for a $43 billion municipal budget and is controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. All of its five-year seats are up for grabs in the September 8 vote.

Russia's main election board on August 7 rejected the appeals of the hunger-striking Sobol and several opposition candidates to be allowed on the ballot.

Of the 30 or so candidates barred from the poll, five are affiliated with or work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation established by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. All but one of those Navalny allies, Sobol, are now in jail.

Navalny himself is serving a 30-day sentence for violating restrictive protest laws.

"Today I'll return to an empty home. And my son marked his sixth birthday without his father," Valeria Gudkova, wife of Dmitry Gudkov, one of the independent candidates excluded from running in Moscow elections, told the crowd from the stage at the Moscow rally.

Russia's Investigative Committee announced on August 3 it was opening a criminal case against Navalny's foundation, claiming the organization was suspected of receiving funding with illegal origins.

Navalny and his allies say the foundation is transparently financed from public donations.

The St. Petersburg chapter of Navalny's organization said its head, Aleksandr Shurshev, was among those detained in the city.

Lawyers for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and its staff said late on August 10 that between four and nine of its people were detained during a search of the related Navalny Live studio and expected to face questioning by Russia's Investigative Committee. One of the lawyers said the search was "part of a criminal case regarding riots."

The Moscow rally included speeches from activists, prominent journalists, and relatives of protesters arrested in recent weeks, as well as musical performances by sympathetic artists.

Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, told RFE/RL before she addressed the crowd, that she came "because I want to be among these people."

"I'm glad to see the youth take responsibility and speak directly to the authorities," Ulitskaya said, though she said she did not expect the protests to result in permission for the independent candidates to run.

Moscow authorities announced plans earlier this week to hold a "Meat & Beat" festival on the same day as the protest, much like last weekend, when Moscow's mayoral office organized a "Shashlik Fest," with free food and music.

Federal prison officials have also organized a competition in Moscow involving police drivers, TASS reported on August 9.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Current Time, Interfax, TASS, The Moscow Times, Mediazona, and Reuters
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