Hundreds protest Russian activist's jailing
Hundreds of people on Thursday protested the jailing of a Russian activist whose detention stoked new anger among the opposition after the mass rallies challenging Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The rally gathered several hundred people in central Moscow and while far smaller than the weekend's mass protest it went ahead without any arrests, something almost unthinkable before the protest wave broke out this month.
The rally was called after a Moscow court late Sunday ordered the detention of left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov for 10 days despite growing alarm for his frail health after he went on hunger strike.
Demonstrators chanted "freedom for political prisoners!", but organisers warned the protestors through loudspeakers to avoid shouting political slogans and showing banners, as dozens of police kept watch.
Organisers emphasised that the action had not been agreed with the police and they wanted to avoid arrests ahead of the New Year. Police warned through their megaphones that "this demonstration is not sanctioned".
Despite occasional tensions when the demonstrators began shouting slogans, the picket in Pushkin Square went ahead without any arrests. Protesters politely applauded the speakers and obeyed their pleas to avoid provocations.
Before the wave of protests erupted after the December 4 parliamentary elections, police would habitually crack down on opposition protests, often arresting dozens of people.
Tens of thousands protested in a mass demonstration in Moscow on Saturday, a protest that was even larger than the first mass protest on December 10.
The protest wave has posed a significant challenge for Putin's 12-year dominance of Russia as he prepares to stand for a third term as president in March elections after his four-year stint as prime minister.
Among those attending the Pushkin Square rally was one of the leaders of the protest movement, former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov, and lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov of the opposition A Just Russia party.
"I am here to support Sergei Udaltsov," said protestor Alexander Lektman, 26. "He went on a hunger strike and that is a great political gesture. I want our unjust political system to change."
While Udaltsov's radical left-wing views are not shared by all in the anti-Putin protest movement, his plight has become a rallying cause for the opposition, angered by the harsh behaviour of the Moscow courts.
Udaltsov had already served a fortnight in jail for taking part in a protest after the December 4 elections: his extra 10-day term was part of a punishment dating back to October that he had not served out.
There is particular anger among the opposition over the strict rulings of Moscow's Tverskoi district court magistrate Olga Borovkova, who sentenced Udaltsov and a number of other prominent opposition protestors this month.
The Vedomosti daily recalled that it was Borovkova who had forced opposition leader Boris Nemstov to stand for several hours during a case in January.
She also jailed protest movement leaders Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin to 15-day terms for taking part in post-election protests, the paper reported.
Udaltsov has been sentenced to three short successive prison terms in recent weeks with the result that he has spent most of the past month in jail. He is currently in hospital under permanent guard.
The leaders of the protest movement have not yet said when the next mass demonstration will take place but they have indicated it will not be before the end of the New Year holidays in mid-January.
© 2011 AFP