MOSCOW -- Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and hundreds of other protesters have been detained by police at an unsanctioned demonstration on May 5 in Moscow, part of a nationwide series of protests organized by Navalny ahead of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a fourth presidential term.
Navalny was taken into custody shortly after arriving at the rally on Pushkin Square in the center of the Russian capital where riot police carted away other protesters while some were beaten by pro-Putin vigilantes.
Video showed police carrying a struggling Navalny out of the square, holding him by the legs and arms.
Navalny ally Ilya Yashin told the Interfax news agency that Navalny had been charged with the administrative offense of disobeying a police officer. He could face up to 15 days in jail.
According to the independent police-monitoring group OVD-Info, some 1,612 people have been detained in 26 cities nationwide in connection with the rally.
Some of those detained were reportedly minors.
In Moscow alone, the number of detainees was 703.
Another 233 protesters were also detained in St. Petersburg.
Moscow police issued a statement saying that "about 300" people had been detained in the capital. No official figures were given for the country as a whole.
'Not Our Tsar'
Media reports said that the number of protesters in Moscow was in the thousands. Police said the crowd numbered some 1,500 people, but officials routinely downplay the size of opposition protests in Russia.
About 1,000 people are estimated to have participated in the rally in St. Petersburg.
Under the slogan "He's not our tsar," Navalny, 41, had called on supporters to take to the streets ahead of Putin's May 7 inauguration to protest what Navalny says was Putin's autocratic rule.
In a post on Twitter on May 4, Navalny called Putin "a craven old man."
"We will force the authorities, comprised of swindlers and thieves, to take into account the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin," Navalny said on May 4.
Rallies were expected in up to 90 cities and towns on May 5, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, although few have received authorization from local officials.
Putin is due to be sworn in for his fourth term as Russia's president on May 7, extending an 18-year reign that his supporters say has lifted the country "from its knees" and is denounced by his opponents as a corrupt, calcifying authoritarian kleptocracy..
Navalny, who has organized large street protests and published numerous reports documenting alleged corruption among Russia's ruling elite, was barred from running in the March presidential election due to a conviction on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated.
Authorities in Moscow had warned Navalny supporters about taking part in the planned protest in the Russian capital, calling it "absolutely unlawful."
In Moscow, riot police detained some protesters, while men, in traditional Cossack dress, were seen beating some of the demonstrators as a police helicopter flew above the crowd.
AFP reported that tear gas had been briefly used.
Among the crowd on Pushkin Square were pockets of pro-Putin supporters, many of them young men.
Pro-Putin activists shouted "Our country, our rules" and "We are for Putin."
Police with megaphones ordered protesters to disperse and warned that "impact munitions" might be used. Riot police in phalanxes contained protesters while other officers moved in to make detentions.
As videos and photos of police roughly manhandling unresisting protesters flooded social media, Moscow police spokesman Vladimir Chernikov was quoted as saying "the police and National Guard today acted strictly in accordance with the law, competently and calmly."
"Unfortunately, as we expected, there were provocations on the part of the organizers of the unauthorized rally," he added, according to Interfax.
Earlier, in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, 35 people were detained following clashes between protesters and baton-wielding police.
In Yakutsk, 75 protesters were detained by police at the rally there, according to a Navalny supporter.
In Novokuznetsk, police detained 26 protesters taking part in the rally there.
Additionally, 164 were detained in Chelyabinsk and 63 in Tolyatti. Detentions were also reported in Kaluga, Samara, Barnaul, Penza, Blagoveshchensk, Kurgan, Tver, Yekaterinburg, and other cities.
Like Navalny, many of the protesters are being charged with the administrative violation of disobeying police and are being released pending hearings.
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora rights group, posted on Telegram that Moscow police were preventing lawyers from communicating with detainees.
'Fundamental Freedoms Under Threat'
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert posted on Twitter that the United States "condemns Russia's detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters and calls for their immediate release."
"Leaders who are secure in their own legitimacy don't arrest their peaceful opponents for protesting," she wrote.
A spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini issued a statement saying the police reaction in Russia threatened "the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the Russian Federation."
"Even if some of the demonstrations were not authorized in the location where they took place, this cannot justify police brutality and mass arrests," the statement said, adding that the EU expected Russia to "release without delay peaceful demonstrators and journalists."
On the eve of the protests, Navalny supporters were detained by police in several Russian cities including St. Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk, Krasnodar, Tambov, Kemerovo, and Cheboksary.
In Yekaterinburg, police searched Navalny’s regional headquarters and confiscated leaflets advertising the May 5 rally.
A coordinator for Navalny the southern city of Volgograd, Aleksei Volkov, wrote on Twitter that students at local schools were forced to sign papers acknowledging that they could face serious consequences, including expulsion, if they take part in the rally.