Police detained over 800 people at an opposition gathering in Moscow on Saturday, as authorities upped the pressure on top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny by launching a criminal probe into his anti-graft group.
Crowds walked along the capital’s central boulevards in a protest “stroll” over the refusal by officials to let opposition candidates run in September polls for city parliament seats — a local issue that has turned into a political crisis.
Most of those candidates and opposition leaders, including Navalny, are being held by police following a protest rally last weekend, in which 1,400 demonstrators were detained — one of the biggest crackdowns in years.
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On Saturday, riot police were deployed in large numbers in central Moscow, some shops and cafes were shut, metal barriers were erected, mobile internet was down for many hours, and a metro station was temporarily closed.
Some 828 people were detained during the rally, independent protest monitor OVD-Info said.
Police said only 1,500 people took part in the gathering.
AFP correspondents said the turnout was likely in the thousands but a precise estimate was difficult as the protest was spread over several neighbourhoods.
– Police actions questioned –
AFP observed dozens of arrests along the route of the protest, as police formed human chains and grabbed people indiscriminately.
“They came and took seven people right in front of me,” said 50-year-old Olga Yakovleva sitting on a bench on a square along the protest route. “I lost the power of speech… it was just people sitting and talking.”
Lyubov Sobol, an ally of key opposition leader Navalny and currently three weeks into a hunger strike after being barred from taking part in the election, was dragged from a taxi and detained as she set off for the rally.
Hours later she was taken to court where she was fined 300,000 rubles ($4,600) for a gathering on July 15, and held for further questioning over the protest last weekend, her team said.
Opposition candidates who attempted to run in the polls next month argue that the authorities have arbitrarily declared signatures they gathered to qualify invalid.
People in the crowd on Saturday said they just wanted the opposition to have a chance to compete.
“I believe everyone should have a right to take part” in the polls, 39-year-old Robert told AFP.
Footage surfaced of officers in riot gear beating people prostrated on the pavement with batons, and many officers began to wear masks to prevent activists from identifying them on photos and videos.
Amnesty International condemned the “unnecessary and excessive use of force” and “unfounded” attempts to paint Moscow protest actions as a violent uprising.
Authorities have launched investigations into last weekend’s “mass riots” and “violence against police”, echoing similar probes into protests against President Vladimir Putin in 2012 which saw several people jailed.
Protestors insist their actions are strictly peaceful, and there have been no reports of damaged property.
– New ‘laundering’ probe –
The opposition had hoped the September polls would bring an end to the monopoly of Kremlin loyalists in Moscow’s parliament.
The body decides the city’s multi-billion-dollar budget but lacks political independence from mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of Putin.
Sobyanin has warned the opposition against “new provocations”.
Navalny and other protest leaders say corruption is rife in the capital. His anti-corruption foundation FBK this week published a new investigation into Sobyanin’s deputy, accusing her of selling prime Moscow property to family members at rock-bottom prices.
On Saturday, FBK, which previously made other high-profile investigations into the questionable wealth of top officials, itself became a target of a new probe into “laundering” a billion rubles ($15.3 million).
The popular FBK collects money through donations. Navalny’s ally Leonid Volkov dismissed the allegations as an attempt to stamp out Navalny’s national network of volunteers.
Navalny, currently in jail, was rushed from his cell to hospital last weekend in an incident his personal doctor said could be poisoning with an unknown chemical substance.
A state toxicology lab said no traces were found.
President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment on the situation in Moscow.