Russian police have detained around 200 people, mostly opposition figures and municipal deputies, at an event in Moscow, in the latest crackdown on Kremlin critics ahead of elections later this year.
Police stormed a forum dedicated to discussing parliamentary and local elections in September shortly after it began at Moscow's Izmailovo Hotel on March 13.
Video footage showed police entering the building and taking attendees to police vans waiting outside.
The Interior Ministry said around 200 people were detained. Attendees and observers suggested everyone present at the event had been detained, including several journalists.
Police said those detained were not following coronavirus-related health measures and that the forum had links to an "undesirable organization."
"A significant portion of participants lacked personal protective equipment," the police said in a statement. "Members of an organization whose activities are considered undesirable on Russian territory were among the participants."
Participants from more than 50 regions of Russia had gathered to discuss election strategy at the forum organized by the United Democrats project, which is not on a list of "undesirable" organizations kept by prosecutors.
United Democrats is backed by exiled former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia movement has been designated an "undesirable organization” since 2017.
"In Moscow, the ENTIRE forum of municipal deputies of Russia was detained!" Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter. "The dictatorship is discarding the last fig leaves," he wrote, in an apparent suggestion that the Russian government was dropping attempts to present even a facade of democracy.
Later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sweeping detentions were made on "dubious grounds."
"We call for an end to the persecution of independent voices," he wrote on Twitter.
Among the detainees were prominent critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including senior Open Russia leaders Andrei Pivovarov and Anastasia Burakova, former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, city deputies Ilya Yashin and Yulia Galyamina, and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza.
OVD-Info, which monitors the detention of political protesters and activists, said that by late evening most detainees had been released but ordered to appear in court at a later date on charges of participating in activities of an "undesirable organization."
Russia's "undesirable organization" law was adopted in May 2015 amid a flurry of legislative, executive, and other restrictive efforts to further curb dissent in the country. One of the effects has been to squeeze many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from foreign sources and provide grounds to persecute their members.
The detentions were the latest crackdown on Russia's opposition since Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny was arrested, put on trial, and imprisoned in the wake of his January return from Germany, where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and his agents.
Navalny's team accused the authorities of seeking to further intimidate critics ahead of the September elections.
"It is clear why the forum has been broken up -- authorities are afraid of any competition during elections," the team said on the Telegram messaging app.
The ruling United Russia party is becoming unpopular, it claimed, adding' "Winning even rigged elections is becoming ever more difficult."
Navalny and his supporters have developed a "smart voting" system that is aimed at undoing United Russia’s stranglehold on political power through better coordination of voters at the local level.