Police in Moscow Overpower Opposition Rally

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 15, 2007

MOSCOW, April 14 -- Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and at least 170 other anti-Kremlin activists were detained Saturday after hundreds of riot police sealed off Moscow's Pushkin Square and clubbed some protesters to prevent a banned opposition rally and march.

"They are seizing people everywhere, so that any group of people that looks even the least bit suspicious is immediately arrested -- not just blocked, but arrested, harshly," Kasparov said in a cellphone interview with the radio station Echo Moskvy after the arrest, his first. He waved to supporters from a police van before he was driven off.

Police later broke up a demonstration outside the police station where he was being held. Protesters shouting "Freedom for political prisoners!" were kicked and clubbed by police.

Kasparov was released late Saturday.

At the square, lines of police, including undercover officers pointing out vocal demonstrators, had quickly moved in on anyone who began to chant slogans or tried to galvanize people milling around the police cordon. Some elderly women, carrying flowers and copies of the Russian constitution, were knocked down or hauled away. A number of journalists were arrested, but officials said they were quickly released.

Kasparov is a leader of Other Russia, an opposition coalition that had called on supporters to assemble in Pushkin Square despite a decision by city officials to ban any gathering by the group at that location.

"The authorities are afraid of us, they are nervous," said former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who broke with President Vladimir Putin and is a leader of Other Russia and a potential presidential candidate. "Why can free people not walk? Why are they beaten?"

The coalition has held a series of what it calls "dissenters' marches" in Russian cities in recent weeks. All have been suppressed, sometimes violently, by masses of riot police. Another is planned for St. Petersburg on Sunday.

Kasparov and his supporters say they plan to continue stepping up their protests in the next 12 months in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections. They charge that Putin has squeezed the life out of Russian democracy and plans to stage-manage the elections to prevent a free choice.

Local authorities stressed that they did provide a permit for the group to hold a demonstration at another location -- several hundred people gathered there, and Kasyanov addressed them. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said that by seeking to stage a march where it was not permitted, members of Other Russia were looking for a confrontation with police.

"We have sanctioned a large number of events, both pro-government and pro-presidential, and also anti-government ones," Luzhkov told journalists Saturday. "We live in a free and democratic country and allow the expression of both agreement and disagreement with the government.

"Processions are a problem to us," he continued. "We have not allowed pro-presidential organizations to hold them as well and suggested that they find a large place for a rally. We act similarly with anti-government organizations who want to express their protest to the authorities."

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