Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tries to crush dissenters

Saturday, September 4, 2010

RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER Vladimir Putin must be disappointed in his police force. True, Moscow police responded roughly on Tuesday when hundreds tried to demonstrate peacefully in favor of freedom of assembly. But the police apparently didn't beat anyone with clubs, as Mr. Putin had urged them to do. We hope he shows some leniency toward the force despite its lack of total brutality.

If this sounds like a bad joke, we can only say that we wish it were. On Monday in this space we noted that a 68-year-old human rights activist, among others, had been sent to prison for peacefully carrying his nation's flag in a parade to celebrate Flag Day. The sentence seemed to be more in keeping with Mr. Putin's values than with the Russian constitution: The latter protects freedom of assembly, while Mr. Putin -- former KGB agent and current de facto ruler, though President Dmitry Medvedev occupies the Kremlin -- has made clear that constitutional protections do not extend to his political opponents.

That same day, Mr. Putin confirmed our point more eloquently than any editorial could. "What does the current law say about marches?" he asked in an interview with the newspaper Kommersant. "You must receive permission from local authorities. If you received it, go and demonstrate. If not, you don't have the right. If you come out without the right, you will be beaten on your skull with a truncheon. And that's that."

In fact, Article 31 of Russia's constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and, as Vladimir Kara-Murza noted on the Web site of the journal World Affairs, the implementing law requires only that would-be demonstrators notify officials of their plans. But an organization that since 2009 has sought to hold rallies on the 31st day of every 31-day month, in honor of Article 31, has been denied permission every time -- "with city authorities citing a wide range of pretexts, including previously planned car festivals, concerts and blood drives," as the Moscow Times reported. And when hundreds gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 31, police again met them with force, arresting more than 100, according to newspaper reports.

In the wake of the arrests, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley expressed "concern" about the Russian government's "shrinking the space for civil society. We have concerns about intimidation of citizens, intimidation of journalists, intimidations of nongovernmental operators who are working on behalf of the Russian people," Mr. Crowley said. Soon he may have to speak up on behalf of police officers who are punished for their restraint in the use of billy clubs.

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