Wave of Arrests in Protests Across Russia
By Sergey Chernov
Dozens of protesters were arrested Sunday during an anti-Kremlin protest in St. Petersburg aimed at the government’s handling of the economy and constitutional changes that prolong presidential terms.
The police said more than 60 protesters were detained near the Gostiny Dvor mall on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main street, where the opposition groups had gathered, while more than 100 activists were reportedly detained at a similar event in Moscow. Protesters said no fewer than 100 were detained in St. Petersburg.
The date for the latest in a series of so-called Dissenters’ Marches was chosen to coincide with the Decembrist Uprising in 1825 that demanded Russia’s Tsarist autocracy be replaced with a constitutional monarchy or a republic.
Marches were held simultaneously in Moscow and St. Petersburg by Other Russia, the pro-democracy coalition formed by Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front (OGF) and Eduard Limonov’s banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), with a number of other political parties and movements joining them.
On Thursday, City Hall, which had earlier refused all three routes proposed by organizers in St. Petersburg without offering any alternative route, suggested the protest be held as a stationary meeting, rather than a march, in one of two distant gardens.
For safety reasons, the organizers agreed to a rally at Chernyshevsky Gardens in the west of the city, but insisted that protesters would still gather at the originally suggested site near Gostiny Dvor metro station, as it had been advertised on leaflets and stickers, and then walk along Nevsky’s sidewalks to the destination.
Before 2 p.m., when the event was due to start, the police presence in the center was immense, with heavy OMON special-task police trucks and armored vehicles parked on corners all along Nevsky Prospekt, and extensive police foot patrols. Six buses were parked in a line along Gostiny Dvor, obscuring the entrance to the metro, where more than a 100 people had gathered. Hundreds of policemen waited in the area.
On Saturday, the NPB said that the authorities were planning to use 3,000 policemen to police the event, with 1,000, including 250 OMON policemen, stationed around Gostiny Dvor.
A police spokesman declined to comment on the figures on Sunday, giving the standard answer that the “force was sufficient for ensuring public order.”
Arrests started minutes before 2 p.m. when policemen approached an elderly woman from both sides who was walking peacefully with a poster reading “Stop the Genocide of Pensioners,” protesting against Russia’s notoriously low old-age pensions, and escorted her into a bus. Next was a man who held a poster saying “Change Those in Power, and Not the Constitution!” — one of the march’s slogans. A short while later, a young woman who had covered her mouth with a surgical mask with the word “Censorship” written on it was arrested.
What appeared to be indiscriminate arrests soon followed, including that of Vitaly Milonov, a deputy with the city’s Legislative Assembly and member of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia.
Milonov was taken to a bus but released minutes later after producing his deputy’s card. Several NBP members on the scene lit flares and raised a red NBP flag with the word “Censorship” instead the banned hammer and sickle logo in protest against the police’s actions. They were also detained.
The rights of detainees were violated both in buses and in courts, activists said.
A witness who identified herself as Nadezhda said by phone on Monday that she saw a police colonel press his fingers into the eyes of a detained man and say “Didn’t I tell you that I will pop your eyes out?”
Although a police spokesman said the detentions were made as the result of violations of public order, the charge of “disobeying police orders” was broadly used. This offence is punishable with either a fine or up to 15 days in custody.
In the days preceding the Dissenters’ March, pressure on oppositionists increased. Many activists were visited by policemen who wanted to obtain signed statements that they would not take part in the protest.
On Thursday, the organizers said they agreed to City Hall’s proposal to hold a stationary meeting instead of a procession.
“We were forced under tough pressure from the security services to accept an obviously unlawful offer about conducting a stationary meeting at Chernyshevsky Garden,” said Olga Kurnosova, the local leader of OGF, and Maxim Reznik, local Yabloko Democratic Party leader, in a joint statement on Saturday. In a further development, Reznik was harassed by an unknown man and questioned by police after the rally on Sunday (see related story, page 1).
Not every organizer or major participant made it to the rally.
Kurnosova, who returned Sunday from Moscow, having attending the founding conference of the new democratic movement Solidarity on Saturday, said she managed to evade the police at the Moscow Station by getting out of a different wagon from where her ticketed seat was located and went to a friend’s house after finding out that four police vehicles were parked next to her house with a number of policemen walking around.
“For the past three days I have not felt well, but when I called an ambulance, since my mobile phone is tapped the police came first, and the ambulance five minutes later,” said Kurnosova by phone from Pokrovskaya Hospital on Monday. She has been diagnosed with hypertension.
Three policemen attending the scene, including one with an assault rifle, asked paramedics if Kurnosova was really ill, and followed the ambulance to the hospital where they remained, she said, adding that the last officer did not leave the hospital until 9 p.m.
OGF activist Mikhail Makarov, who was officially in charge of conducting the meeting at Chernyshevsky Gardens, which was agreed with both the protesters and the City Hall, left his home at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday to find that the tire of one of the wheels of his car had been slashed, he said by phone on Monday.
When he was replacing the wheel, a traffic policemen approached, checked the numbers on the engine and elsewhere in the car, concluded there was an inconsistency and drove Makarov to Police Precinct 60.
“They were obviously marking time and only let me go 15 minutes before the rally ended. That’s how I ‘conducted the meeting,’” Makarov said.
Local NBP leader Andrei Dmitriyev was detained when he was walking on Moskovsky Prospekt heading to Gostiny Dvor at 1 p.m. on Sunday. He was charged with “using obscene language in public.”
Maxim Malyshev, the local leader of the left-wing Red Youth Avant-Garde (AKM), was brutally beaten by two unknown men near his house at around 10 p.m. on Saturday.
The stationary meeting gathered between 400 and 500 protesters at the distant Chernyshevsky Garden surrounded by the police. Reznik, the leader of Narod movement Sergei Gulyayev, musician Mikhail Borzykin of the rock band Televizor and others spoke. The police did not interfere.
The Moscow event was similarly thwarted as police seized demonstrators and shoved them into trucks, reported The Associated Press. Organizers said 130 people were detained around the capital but police put the number at 90.
News broadcasts on the main television networks made no mention of the Moscow crackdown or of the protest in St. Petersburg.
Police also seized Other Russia co-leader Eduard Limonov along with a handful of bodyguards as they walked toward the square. They were bundled into police vehicles.