MOSCOW -- Police in Moscow have detained and beaten opposition politicians, along with protesters, in an attempt to disperse a demonstration against the refusal of election officials to register several opposition figures as candidates in municipal elections.
Moscow police said they arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators around the unsanctioned rally on July 27 amid a heavy security presence in the Russian capital.
Several opposition figures and would-be candidates were among those detained -- including Ivan Zhdanov, Ilya Yashin, and Dmitry Gudkov.
Lyubov Sobol, an opposition leader whose bid to run in the municipal election was rejected by the city's election commission, and Moscow City Duma deputy Yulia Galyamina were detained by police on July 27 on their way to the rally in central Moscow.
Sobol, Yashin, Galyamina, and Zhdanov were released in the early evening of July 27. But Sobol, Zhdanov, and Galyamina were rearrested later the same day, along with dozens more demonstrators, near the Moscow Metro's Trubnaya station after they issued calls for protests to continue there.
Aleksandra Parushina, a Moscow City Duma deputy from the opposition A Just Russia party, told the Russian-language Current Time television network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA that she was struck in the head by riot police from Russia's OMON force who "brutally" dispersed a crowd that was attempting to form near the Moscow mayor's office on Tverskaya Street, one of of the city's main thoroughfares.
"The OMON was called with batons and they started pushing us back very brutally and, in this horrific stampede, they began hitting people on their heads," Parushina said. "I received a blow. At first I did not even feel the pain, just saw so much blood on me from somewhere."
"I was probably unconscious for a moment and when I came back to my senses I heard OMON officers offering to fetch me an ambulance," Parushina said. "I refused because I was worried about all the people here and I decided to come back to be with all of them. At the end people managed to give me first aid."
Parushina said shortly after the incident that she had not yet decided what action she would take in response to the violence.
But she called for the resignation of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that what he is doing is "no longer leadership but destruction."
'A New Low'
The director of Amnesty International's office in Russia, Natalya Zvyagina, said Russian authorities "hit a new low by imposing military law-like security measures on the unsanctioned rally, blocking access to major Moscow streets and shutting down businesses in advance" despite the absence of credible reports of potential violence.
"Efforts to quash opposition voices reached absurd levels when protest leaders were preventively detained by police upon leaving their homes to attend the rally," Zvyagina said.
She said representatives of her nongovernmental human rights group witnessed "indiscriminate use of force by police, who beat protesters with batons and knocked them to the ground."
Zvyagina also noted that "police detained a jogger running past Moscow City Hall hours before the start of the rally; media later reported that his leg had been broken."
Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia's Presidential Council For Civil Society and Human Rights, said he saw people being detained for no reason at the rally but he did not see any instances of police violence. He said he would raise the issue with law enforcement officers.
"I got mixed impressions from the detentions that I saw," Fedotov told Russia's Interfax news agency. "I spoke to detained people in a van. I did not see any violent arrests, but groundless ones. I saw them with my own eyes."
Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the human rights council, said he did not see demonstrators act aggressively. He described the arrests as "random," saying men and women were "being picked and dragged into police vans."
'We Are Unarmed!'
An official from Moscow's city police department told RFE/RL that more than 3,500 people gathered near the mayor's office for the unsanctioned demonstration -- including 700 registered journalists and bloggers.
Opposition activists said the number was much higher but it was difficult to estimate accurate figures because authorities prevented a mass crowd from gathering together in any one location.
As police moved in to disperse the demonstrators near Moscow City Hall, many in the crowd could be heard singing the Russian national anthem.
Others chanted "We are unarmed!", "Fair elections now!", and "Russia will be free!"
Helmeted police also barged into the headquarters of Aleksei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition activist, while his aides were conducting a live YouTube broadcast of the protest and arrested program leader Vladimir Milonov.
Police also searched Dozhd, an Internet TV station that was covering the protest. Its editor-in-chief Aleksandra Perepelova was ordered to undergo questioning by Russia's Investigative Committee.
The decision to bar opposition candidates over what election officials described as insufficient signatures on nominating petitions has sparked several days of demonstrations this month.
Opposition leaders say it's an attempt to deny them the chance to challenge pro-government candidates.
The violent crackdown followed raids on the houses of some opposition politicians who tried to register for the September elections but were rejected by Moscow city election officials.
Navalny had called for the protest, saying it would continue until the rejected candidates were allowed to run.
Navalny was jailed for 30 days on July 24 for calling an unauthorized protest.
In a Twitter post earlier on July 27, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin said that "order in the city will be ensured."
Sobyanin also alleged that the opposition was busing in activists from the regions for this "provocation."
Ivan Kulnev, a would-be Moscow City Duma candidate whose bid to register rejected, said the detentions of protesters and opposition candidates, as well as home searches, were "discrediting" the authorities in Moscow.
"What are you doing to us?" he said, referring to authorities. "Why are you inciting [passions]? They detained [Ilya] Yashin in the morning, then more of our [opposition] candidates. They are conducting searches. Why? You are simply making people mad. They have completely discredited themselves. Essentially, they have f****d themselves up with the whole world watching," Kulnev told Current Time.
The manager of a pharmacy near the Moscow mayor's office told RFE/RL that police had instructed her and managers of other nearby shops to close for the day or "face consequences."
"You know what’s worst?" the manager, Yekaterina, said. "It’s normal people like us who will suffer."
Nastya Safyeva, a 24-year-old protester, said she had turned out to defend "our right to vote."
"Today’s an important day since our candidates were not allowed to run," Safyeva told RFE/RL."
Heading into the weekend, the authorities moved against many of the protest leaders.
On July 24, law-enforcement officers searched the homes of several would-be candidates in the Moscow vote and summoned some for questioning, citing a criminal probe opened the same day by the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, which accused activists of hampering the work of the election officials.
Late the following day, Navalny associate and would-be Moscow City Duma candidate Sobol was carried out of the city election commission building on a couch.
On July 26, members of the Investigative Committee combed the campaign headquarters of Sobol and fellow Moscow City Duma candidates Zhdannov and Yashin.
'Brazen And Unlawful'
Candidate Konstantin Yankauskas said police also searched the home of his parents.
"They don’t even try to hide that this criminal case is politically motivated," Yashin said on Twitter. "It is brazen and unlawful pressure on the opposition in the peak of an election campaign."
In a Twitter post on July 27, Navalny's press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, said authorities also searched her apartment as well as Ruslan Shaveddinov's, the host of Navalny's YouTube channel.
Yarmysh had tweeted on July 26 that the searches were part of an effort by police to "intimidate and frighten people so that when they read all the stories about questionings and arrests, they become too frightened to leave their homes."
The protests began earlier in July after the Moscow Election Commission excluded independent opposition candidates from the September Moscow City Duma election, claiming some of the required 5,500 signatures they had collected to get on the ballot were invalid.
The independent candidates have accused the committee of fraud, claiming the officials are trying to find excuses to prevent them from competing against pro-government politicians.
A July 20 opposition rally in Moscow drew an estimated crowd of 20,000 and the opposition was promising a bigger crowd for the next demonstration.
But Moscow authorities refused to sanction the planned July 27 Moscow event, claiming there were threats of violence against members of the election commission.
The 45 members of the Moscow City Duma hold powerful posts, retaining the ability to propose legislation as well as inspect how the city’s $43 billion budget is spent.
The outcome of the battle between the election commission and the independent candidates could set a precedent for the rest of Russia, said Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis who focuses on Russian domestic politics.
“All eyes are on Moscow right now," Snegovaya told RFE/RL on July 25. "If the independent candidates are allowed to run, this would serve a very important inspiration for the opposition across the country and possibly mobilize it in light of the upcoming regional elections in September."