Russia’s opposition on Saturday held its largest protest in years in central Moscow in a show of strength and defiance after previous rallies were forcefully dispersed with mass arrests.
Monitors from the White Counter group, an nongovernmental organization that counts participants at rallies, reported that nearly 50,000 people attended the demonstration, making it the largest opposition rally since 2013.
By 7pm, police had made more than 100 arrests, many coming after a group of protesters left the larger, sanctioned demonstration and walked toward Russia’s presidential administration building.
OVD-Info, a monitoring body, later reported that 229 people were arrested in Moscow and 81 at another rally in St Petersburg.
Riot police in balaclavas wielding nightsticks picked demonstrators out of the crowd and dragged them to nearby police vans, marking the third successive week of protesting in Russia’s capital marked by mass arrests.
Military vans carrying troops in body armor were also seen in downtown Moscow.
As mass arrests began, some protesters unsuccessfully sought refuge in an upscale hotel.
One protester in the process of being detained said: “The demonstration ended and we came here to walk. Now they’re just picking people and detaining them.”
Police also detained opposition leaders and raided a media studio tied to anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, where supporters were set to run a live broadcast of the protest, activists said.
While the rally was authorized, Navalny — who is currently in jail — had urged supporters to walk peacefully through the city afterwards.
Navalny’s associate, Boris Zolotarevsky, told protesters to proceed to Putin’s administration offices.
He was detained by police shortly afterwards.
Earlier, chanting “dopuskai” (let them through), members of Russia’s opposition had called for independent candidates to be allowed to appear in Moscow’s municipal elections.
Shortly before the demonstration, police officers wearing masks detained Lyubov Sobol, an opposition activist who has declared a hunger strike over her disqualification from the elections.
The police said she was planning a “provocation” at the rally.
The rally had been permitted to go ahead by the city government, even though some speakers called for a march on the presidential administration building.
Monitors allied with the opposition said they counted 49,900 people at 4pm, although police estimated the crowd at 20,000.
“Everyone has his own reason to be here,” said Maria Ostozheva, 53, standing in a plastic poncho on a cold and rainy summer afternoon. “The elections are just part of it. Nothing is changing. We need change.”
Many attendees held signs saying “I have a right to a choice” or photographs of those charged with inciting protests in the past two weeks.
Russian police have cracked down on the protesters more forcefully than usual, opening criminal cases, checking debt and military service records, and even initiating a process to take an infant son from her protesting parents.
The case was later dropped.
“It’s a police state,” said a young protester who gave his name as Mikhail. “My parents know I am here today. They support me. And I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t protest.”
The protest was attended by a number of prominent musicians, including the rappers Face and Oxxxymiron, the popular video blogger Yury Dud and others with appeal among younger Russians.
“I honestly don’t get politics,” said Face, whose real name is Ivan Dryomin. “But I believe that freedom is life. And I hope that we’ll have it one day.”
Additional reporting by AFP
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