MOSCOW: More than 200 people including opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained Wednesday as police sought to break up a peaceful Moscow rally against the alleged impunity of law enforcement agencies.
Russian police in riot gear moved in against the unsanctioned march of more 1,000 people amid screams of protesters shouting “you are criminals” and “stop police terror.”
Moscow police said around 1,200 took part in the march and more than 200 people were arrested.
AFP correspondents witnessed dozens of arrests which took place on Russia Day, a public holiday.
As police dragged protesters into vans the crowd yelled: “Shame, on Russia Day, this is our country’s day! Have you forgotten the constitution?”
Some of the arrested wore T-shirts in support of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who was last week arrested on trumped-up drugs charges.
One detained activist brandished a placard saying, “I am Ivan Golunov” in the window of a police van.
At least four journalists were detained including a producer for Der Spiegel, a German news magazine.
“The authorities are very much scared of the fantastic and unanimous display of solidarity in the Golunov case,” Navalny tweeted.
“So it’s important for them to destroy common solidarity and then intimidate and put in prison those who insist (on reforms).”
Golunov’s arrest sparked outrage and triggered unprecedented solidarity among Russians, with three top newspapers publishing the same front page: “I am/we are Ivan Golunov” in giant letters on Monday.
Wednesday’s march was initially called to press for the release of Golunov who was then suddenly freed, with the charges against him dropped, on the eve of the rally following several days of public outrage.
Many saw Golunov’s release as a Kremlin attempt to crush the new protest wave.
Protesters called for reform of Russia’s tainted law enforcement agencies and the release from prison of victims of police abuse.
Some urged the release of political prisoners including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
On the eve of the march the Kremlin said the protest could interfere with Russia Day festivities.
– ‘Haven’t won the war’ –
“What happened to Ivan Golunov happens every day all across the country. A lot of drug cases happen like this,” said 15-year-old Yegor, who wore a “I am Golunov” T-shirt.
“We were lucky that Ivan was freed but it was a small victory – we haven’t won the war,” he said before the march.
In the centre of the second city of Saint Petersburg, around 100 people gathered, urging authorities to release victims of alleged police abuse such as respected historian Yury Dmitriyev.
“We should not lull ourselves into complacency,” said local lawmaker Maksim Reznik.
“We should use Golunov’s case to draw attention to others.”
Before Golunov’s release, 25,000 people had expressed interest in the solidarity march and many had hoped to harness the new protest wave to press for change.
But in a controversial move, Meduza’s senior editors and several other top journalists urged Muscovites to call off the protest after Golunov’s release.
“We are not activists and don’t want to be heroes of the resistance,” Meduza chief editor Ivan Kolpakov said on Facebook, triggering a storm of criticism.
He later appeared at the protest.
Many expressed anger and disappointment on social media, saying the Russian authorities had once again managed to divide dissenting Russians.
During his two decades in power, President Vladimir Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.
The few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, Kremlin critics say.
Human rights activists say authorities routinely use trumped-up drugs, extremism and other charges to silence critics with jail sentences.