Russian police detained almost 1,400 people in a violent and sustained crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Moscow over the weekend, in a sign that the Kremlin’s recent tolerance of popular unrest has ended and it is seeking to quell growing opposition movements.
Riot police in helmets and body armour beat crowds of protesters with batons and dragged scores into waiting police trucks in a brutal response to a rally called to protest against a decision not to allow opposition candidates on the ballot for upcoming local elections in the country’s capital.
Arrests began earlier in the week with midnight raids on activists’ homes, and by Sunday morning 1,373 people had been detained, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring group — the highest number for a Russian demonstration for at least a decade.
Most were only temporarily detained but 150 remained in custody on Sunday afternoon.
The rally came after months of rising anger at President Vladimir Putin, and following a series of decisions by the Kremlin to bow to protesters’ demands, including releasing investigative journalist Ivan Golunov in June after drugs charges against him were dropped.
But that tolerance appeared to have snapped on Saturday, with riot police barricading roads, beating back protesters trying to join the demonstration and hunting groups of activists as they retreated.
Mr Putin, who has not commented on the protest, chose Saturday to take a submarine dive in the Gulf of Finland as the crackdown began. The president’s Human Rights Council told local media on Sunday that it would prepare a report for him on the demonstration and the police action.
The US embassy in Moscow said the crackdown undermined citizens’ rights.
“Detention of over 1,000 peaceful protesters in Russia and use of disproportionate police force undermine rights of citizens to participate in the democratic process,” Andrea Kalan, an embassy spokeswoman, said on Twitter. “Free elections and peaceful assembly are guaranteed in the [Russian] constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Videos posted to social media websites showed scores of riot police bearing down on protesters before hitting them with batons, groups of officers snatching individuals who were watching the protest and beating away those that tried to prevent detentions.
Activists had called the rally outside Moscow’s city hall on Saturday afternoon to protest against the barring of opposition politicians from taking part in the September elections.
While the ballot is not critical in Russia’s wider political scene, it has become a lightning rod for wider dissent towards Mr Putin’s regime, whose popularity is sliding because of economic gloom, higher taxes and a rise in the retirement age.
Attempts to crush the demonstration began on Wednesday when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in prison for urging people to attend. Five more activists were detained on Saturday morning, hours before the protest began.
Mr Navalny was rushed to hospital on Sunday after suffering an allergic reaction while in detention, his spokesperson said.
Moscow police said in a statement that individuals had been detained “during the unpermitted protest . . . for violations of public order”, adding that it had already processed the required documentation for their detentions.