Russian Police Beat Democracy Activists

Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG, March 3 -- Police clubbed protesters and dragged them into waiting buses Saturday in response to a defiant demonstration against the Kremlin in the heart of President Vladimir Putin's home town.

Several thousand people chanted "Shame!" as they marched down St. Petersburg's main avenue to protest what they said was Russia's rollback from democracy. The demonstration, called the "march of those who disagree," was a rare gathering of the country's often fractious opposition.

St. Petersburg authorities had prohibited the march, granting permission only for a rally far from the city center, but the activists defied the ban and marched down Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main street.

Riot police beat dozens of protesters with truncheons, but several thousand broke through police cordons. They marched toward the city center and rallied for about 40 minutes until police moved in again, detaining people and dragging them into buses.

Several activists attacked a law enforcement officer. Between 20 and 30 people were detained, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing police officials.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who helped organize the event, said on Echo Moskvy radio that as many as 6,000 people participated, though the crowd appeared to be about half that number.

"The authorities are destroying . . . the constitutional structure, rights and freedoms," said former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who now heads an opposition movement. "Unfortunately, we are going through a very difficult time in our country, but we will continue to fight for our rights."

The activists accused Putin's government of cracking down on the opposition, stifling freedom of speech and hampering democratic institutions by abolishing direct election of provincial governors and creating an obedient parliament.

Mayor Valentina Matviyenko, a close ally of Putin's, called the protesters "guest stars from Moscow" and "youths of extremist persuasion," accusing them of stirring turmoil ahead of elections for the city legislature this month.

The campaign has been marred by allegations of intimidation and harassment after the Yabloko party, one of the country's two main liberal parties, was eliminated from the ballot for what it called groundless technical reasons.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company