Police Detain 170 at Freedom of Assembly Rally

Woman being detained on Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square on May 31, 2010. Source: Getty Images

Russian police detained as many as 170 protesters on Monday evening in Moscow, as more than 1000 opposition activists gathered for the ninth iteration of the Strategy 31 rallies, a series of protests in defense of the constitutional right to the freedom of assembly. Activists and observers present at the rally say that the violence used by the police against protesters was even more brutal than it has been in previous Strategy 31 events, resulting in dozens of injuries and at least two hospitalizations.

Despite repeated appeals by opposition organizers, the Moscow city government refused to sanction the May 31 rally – an ongoing trend that has been criticized by human rights groups and governmental bodies in Russia, Europe, and the United States. Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, which the organizers have made their traditional meeting place, had been occupied since earlier in the day by a group of pro-Kremlin youth organizations holding a rally in support of blood drives. Additionally, the entrance to the square from the adjacent metro station had been cordoned off by police.

Such was the scene when Strategy 31 protesters began to arrive for the 6:00 pm rally. According to the Kasparov.ru news site, a young man wearing a shirt indicating that he was involved with the blood drive rally grabbed a poster reading “down with the illegal government” out of the hands of one of the protesters. At that point, the crowd began loudly chanting, and police then began to make detentions.

Eyewitnesses noted that particularly harsh measures were used against participants of the rally. Police dragged protesters, including young women, along the ground and shoved them into buses waiting nearby. They also broke journalists’ cameras and fired pepper spray into the crowd, regardless of the fact that pregnant women and children were present.

Police went about the detentions and general brutality despite the presence of observers from the European Parliament, Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, reappointed by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2009, and Moscow Human Rights Ombudsman Aleksandr Muzykantsky. The police, in fact, attempted to detain Lukin before realizing who he was.

Editor-in-Chief of the New Times magazine, Yevgeniya Albats, was also detained, but was quickly released after she began reporting live from the scene, presumably by cell phone or through other reporters present.

Two of the three Strategy 31 organizers, former Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva and writer Eduard Limonov (both of whom have been detained at previous rallies), were surrounded a ring of personal guards and reporters during Monday’s event. The police, however, violently detained the guards for no apparent reason. At the same time, people in the same blood drive rally shirts as the previously mentioned young man attempted to provoke fights with those surrounding the organizers.

Kasparov.ru reports that police detained at least 140 people in all, while Interfax reports the figure as closer to 170. Among those detained were Solidarity bureau member Ilya Yashin, Oborona coordinator Oleg Kozlovsky, Forum.msk news site Editor-in-Chief Anatoly Baranov, Sergei Aksenov of the Other Russia coalition, and Konstantin Kosyakin, the third Strategy 31 organizer. Numerous other journalists were also arrested. Reporting from one of the police buses, Solidarity member Nadezhda Mityushkin said that activists were being severely beaten, Kozlovsky in particular.

The detainees were split up and taken to several different police stations, where the situation for many began to deteriorate. Writing on their microblogs, a number of the detained activists said that OMON riot police held them in hot buses for more than an hour and refused to give them water. An ambulance was eventually called for one Solidarity member who became sick after being kept in one for “several hours.”

The most scandalous case appears to be that of Solidarity activist and Gazeta.ru journalist Aleksandr Artemev, who was hospitalized after police allegedly crushed his shoulder to pieces. The incident allegedly occurred when police ordered detainees off of one of the police buses, before following to violently shoved them back in.

Kasparov.ru reports that doctors have diagnosed Artemev with a comminuted shoulder fracture; as a result, he will have to spend ten days in the hospital.

Artemev noted that he came to the Strategy 31 rally as a civil activist, not as a journalist, and that he did not present his journalist credentials to police upon being detained.

The activist also said that he plans to file suit against the police, and that he has several witnesses as well as video footage of the incident.

Mikhail Mikhailov, editor-in-chief of Gazeta.ru, told Kasparov.ru that the incident was “monstrous.”

“The horror of it is that the police officers used violence against a person who possesses a passport as a citizen of the Russian Federation, and at that did it openly, fearing nothing,” said Mikhailov.

Colonel Aleksandr Khavkin, head of the Zamoskvoreche police station where Artemev was injured, denied that his officers were at fault.

Editor-in-Chief Svetlana Mironyuk of RIA Novosti, who also heads the Public Council of the Moscow City Police, told Gazeta.ru that what happened to Artemev was “outrageous” and promised that the council would invite him to give his side of the story.

Solidarity Executive Director Denis Bilunov said that once inside one of the police stations, the detained activists were held for five hours before being interrogated by men presumed to be Federal Security Service (FSB) officials.

Kasparov.ru reported Tuesday morning that most of the detainees were held by police overnight, and that by this afternoon some had still not been released. The majority are being charged with participating in an unsanctioned event (punishable by up to a 1000 ruble/$32 fine) and resisting a police officer (up to 15 days in detention).

Opposition activists also held a Strategy 31 rally in St. Petersburg. Police detained between 50 and 100 of the 500 gathered on Gostiny Dvor after the crowd began to shout “We need a different Russia” and “Russia will be free.”

Elsewhere in the city, 1500 oppositionists gathered for a “March of Dissent,” also dedicated to defending the constitutional right to free assembly. According to United Civil Front’s St. Petersburg branch leader Olga Kurnosova, OMON riot police initially attempted to block the march before backing down in the face of the insistent protesters.

Yury Shevchuk, leader of the rock band DDT and outspoken Kremlin critic, had asked Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday whether or not the march would be allowed. The prime minister then responded that it would be allowed if participants acted legally and did not, for example, hold the march near a hospital. The media followed to take his words as an official sanction of the march, although Putin’s press secretary refuted this the next day.

Additionally, in an interview with Gazeta.ru published on Sunday, Shevchuk said that he had received a call from the Russian White House before the meeting and was asked not to pose any “harsh questions of a political character” to the prime minister, because “the prime minister is very tired and you don’t need to irritate and upset him.”

Solidarity bureau member and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov took part in the March of Dissent in St. Petersburg, and commented on the situation in Moscow on his blog:

The situation in Moscow is markedly worse. More than 100 people have been detained, including our colleagues Ilya Yashin and Oleg Kozlovsky. Yashin was holding a Russian flag, Kozlovsky was holding nothing in general. They were held in a scorching hot bus, and are now waiting in the stations. This is a question of the dialogue between Shevchuk and Putin the other day. There are no hospitals on Triumfalnaya Square or Gostiny Dvor, nobody besides the OMON officers themselves blocked traffic. Nobody held banners or used megaphones. Nevertheless, there are more than 100 detainees. A classic example of hypocrisy and lies. Say one thing, think another, do something else.

Of course, having met with Putin, Shevchuk held his March of Dissent spectacularly. And decent people are grateful to him for that. But with Putin, like always – spite, an attempt to deride a distinguished rock musician, and a pathological fear of his own people.

In addition to the events in Moscow and St. Petersburg, several other Strategy 31 rallies were held on Monday all across Russia, including in the cities of Tomsk, Voronezh, Vladivostok, Omsk, and Krasnoyarsk.

A video of the proceedings in Moscow can be seen by clicking here (note: the music that comes on halfway through was from the blood drive rally organizers).

Correction – June 9, 2010:  This story originally reported that the event held by pro-Kremlin youth groups was a blood drive. It was, in fact, a rally in support of the idea of a blood drive; no blood was donated at the event. The article has been corrected to reflect as much.