Russia Pursues Crackdown
Monday, November 26, 2007
MOSCOW, Nov. 25 -- Russian riot police detained the leaders of an opposition party Sunday and violently dispersed what officials described as an illegal rally and march in St. Petersburg.
Among those detained were Nikita Belykh, chairman of the Union of Right Forces, and Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the 1990s. Both men are candidates for the Union of Right Forces in parliamentary elections next Sunday, and Nemtsov was chosen Friday as the party's candidate in the March presidential election.
Nearly 200 people were detained in the city, including activists allied with Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and opposition leader who was sentenced Saturday in Moscow to five days in jail for participating in an "illegal procession." He and his allies attempted to march to Russia's Central Election Commission to hand in a protest letter on the conduct of the elections.
In St. Petersburg, Russian and foreign correspondents said police beat activists with batons and their fists before hustling them into buses that took them to police stations.
Police defended their actions, saying they were provoked by demonstrators attempting to hold a rally in an unsanctioned location in the city's center.
Activists said police used the same heavy-handed tactics that Russia so forcefully condemned when employed by authorities against the opposition in neighboring Georgia, a country whose leadership is reviled by the Kremlin.
Authorities appear unwilling to tolerate public protest ahead of the parliamentary elections as they push for an overwhelming victory for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
Opposition rallies across Russia on Saturday were broken up by riot police or canceled after organizers were arrested.
"They have forbidden us from discussing Putin," Nemtsov told demonstrators in St. Petersburg just before he was detained. Nemtsov, who was later released, told the Russian news agency Interfax that he was talking "with pensioners and veterans of the siege of Leningrad" when riot police seized him.
Belykh, who was also released, had earlier told reporters by phone that he was walking toward Palace Square in St. Petersburg and "was just about to begin talking when police appeared, grabbed me by the legs and arms and shoved me into a paddy wagon, where I am now."
His party had been deeply skeptical of the street protests organized by Kasparov over the past year. But in recent weeks, the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, has adopted a more confrontational attitude as authorities have constrained its ability to campaign. Before heading to St. Petersburg, Nemtsov also addressed the rally Saturday in Moscow that led to Kasparov's arrest.
"The authorities are trying to stunt the SPS election campaign not only from underneath by seizing campaign materials and arresting activists in the regions, but now they have also set upon party leaders," the party said in a statement Sunday.
The head of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization, expressed dismay about the weekend arrests.
"I am very concerned about the arrests of Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov and a number of their supporters in Moscow and Saint Petersburg," Terry Davis, the council's secretary general, said in a statement Sunday.
Davis noted that Russia had signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly. "These are preconditions for a real democracy," he said.