A Yom Kippur demonstration near the Soviet Embassy to protest treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union ended abruptly yesterday when four protesters were unexpectedly taken into police custody.
In contrast to the usual scenario of embassy protests, three of those arrested said they did not seek to be arrested. Two Christian clergymen who said they had planned to be arrested were left standing on the sidewalk reading their Bibles.
Jewish groups and others have staged protests on 16th Street NW across from the embassy almost daily for nearly 15 years, usually being arrested only when they crossed the street and demonstrated in front of the embassy.
But yesterday's protesters, led by Christian leaders who traditionally stand in for Jewish protesters on Jewish holy days, were arrested before they crossed the street.
Demonstrating within 500 feet of an embassy is a misdemeanor offense, but veteran protesters said yesterday they had always been allowed to stand across the street from the embassy without risking arrest.
Police said the four persons were arrested because they held signs displaying anti-Soviet slogans. The embassy arrests, according to police spokesman Lt. William White III, did not differ "from the manner in which we have dealt with demonstrations there in the past."
White said it has been departmental policy to permit silent protesters to remain across the street from the embassy as long as there are no signs, no chanting or singing and no derogatory remarks being directed toward the embassy.
White said yesterday's demonstrators "were given warnings" about the protest signs, but those arrested and other protesters said they heard no warnings.
"I didn't think there was anything wrong with praying for relief from injustice in another country," said John W. Robitscher, 25, an Episcopal layman who is an intern at the Interfaith Conference. Robitscher said he was praying when police placed him under arrest.
Also arrested yesterday were the Rev. Eugene F. Brake, 51, a Catholic priest; Amy L. Anderson, 22, who works at a shelter for homeless women at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Northeast Washington, and the Rev. John Steinbruck, 54, of Luther Place Memorial Church.
The four pleaded not guilty to breaking the 500-foot rule.
Steinbruck said he intended to cross the street and be arrested with two others, including the Rev. Robert Drinan, a former congressman. But he said his arrest came without warning and before he had broken any law.
The Luther Place minister said he has participated in demonstrations across the street from the Soviet Embassy "a thousand times" without being arrested.
Also yesterday, 10 anti-Soviet protesters from a March 29 demonstration at the Soviet Embassy were found guilty of violating the 500-foot rule and were sentenced in D.C. Superior Court to $40 fines or two days in jail.
The 10 staged their demonstration to protest the treatment of a Ukrainian civil rights activist.
Yesterday's sentencing of the Soviet Embassy protesters was in marked contrast to the treatment of hundreds of antiapartheid demonstrators who have been been arrested almost daily at the South African Embassy. The U.S. attorney has dismissed charges against those demonstrators, saying the cases lack prosecutorial merit.