Scores of activists detained at Russian rights protest

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Police broke up an opposition protest in Moscow and detained at least 70 activists Tuesday, days after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed tough action against unsanctioned gatherings.

Riot police roughly rounded up protesters at a demonstration in support of freedom of assembly that was held at a central square without official permission and carried them away in three buses, an AFP reporter witnessed.

Several hundred people, including scores of journalists, turned up for the demonstration at the Triumfalnaya Ploshchad.

Seventy people were detained at the demonstration, a Moscow police spokesman told AFP on Tuesday evening, citing preliminary figures.

A separate police spokesman said he could not immediately give an exact number of the detained. "They are still delivering them," the spokesman said.

Members of the European Parliament who monitored the protest said they were surprised to see so many police officers.

Police, who appeared to massively outnumber the protesters, formed a cordon along the pavement and erected mobile plastic barriers to seal off the square.

A Moscow police spokesman told AFP that around 500 police were present at the demonstration to keep order.

Among the protesters were several prominent activists, including opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was detained as he handed out copies of a critical report he wrote on Putin, he told the Echo of Moscow radio station.

The protest was one of a series of "Strategy 31" demonstrations organised for the 31st day of the month in reference to Article 31 in the Russian constitution which permits peaceful demonstrations.

Among those detained were also a priest with a sign reading "31" and a protester who held a poster with the faces of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev pasted onto the national symbol of a double-headed eagle, an AFP reporter witnessed.

The crowd chanted slogans "Russia will be Free!" and "Russia without Putin!" and "This is our city", calling for respect for Russians' constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

The Triumfalnaya Ploshchad square was fenced off last week after the local government said it wanted to build a car park, a decision the opposition viewed as political pressure.

"It's all fenced off by soldiers and police," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, one of the country's veteran human rights campaigners. "I am going home because there is nothing to do here."

Police also detained up to 60 protesters in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg where around 500 had gathered for similar demonstrations at two different locations in the centre of the city, some shouting "Russia Without Putin."

Putin said in an interview published Monday that demonstrators deserved to be beaten up if they took part in unsanctioned demonstrations.

"They need to obtain permission from the local authorities... If they go out without permission, they'll take a cudgel to the head. That's all there is to it," Putin said in an interview with daily Kommersant.

Several members of the European Parliament who were monitoring the Moscow protest said they were surprised to see so many police turn up at the demonstration.

"It is disappointing to see that a country that wants to profile itself as such a strong actor in the world cannot even tolerate a few dissenting voices," said Heidi Hautala, the Finnish chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, while watching the protest.

Thijs Berman, a Dutch member of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights delegation, called the protest "distressing."

"A government that considers itself strong should be able to allow a few protesters. Instead you see a disproportionate number of police," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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