Russian protesters defy Putin warning – and meet tough response
Hundreds of young Russians protested Tuesday in support of their constitutional right of free assembly, despite Prime Minister Putin's warning against unsanctioned political rallies.
Defying a warning from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that anybody trying to stage unsanctioned political rally would be "beaten on the head" by police, hundreds of mainly youthful protesters showed up Tuesday night at Moscow's fenced-off and police-barricaded Triumph Square to demand that Russian authorities honor their constitutional right of free assembly.Skip to next paragraph
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"If you get [permission], then go out and demonstrate," Mr. Putin said in a newspaper interview Monday. "If not, you do not have the right. If you go out without having the right – you are going to get beaten with a club. It’s as simple as that."
Nearly 1,000 riot police who were on hand mostly kept their truncheons sheathed. Wedges of armored-and-helmeted police charged repeatedly into the crowd, arresting at least 70 people, including top leaders of the "Strategy 31" movement, named after Article 31 of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which guarantees civic freedoms.
The official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Pyotr Biryukov, a spokesman for the Moscow police department, as saying the protesters numbered about 400 people, including 300 journalists. "About 70 opposition activists were detained," he added.
Organizers of the rally claim a protest turnout at up to 1,000 people. The number of journalists who were on the scene appeared to be no more than a few dozen.
In the past, Moscow police have usually been able to quickly sweep protesters from the area and whisk the leaders off to prison without much fuss, but they appeared far less successful Tuesday night.
The crowd was driven by police into the vast columned arcade of the Tchaikovsky Theater, which abuts Triumph Square, but stubbornly refused to disperse for almost two hours.
Broken up by police charges, protesters would re-form in another part of the arcade, chanting slogans calculated to infuriate Moscow authorities, such as "This is our City," "Down with the Police State," and "Putin out." Whenever police moved in to make an arrest, the shout would shift to "shame, shame."
"If you look at their faces, you can see the police don't like doing this. They're people just like us," said demonstrator Oleg Bolotkovich. "But the police are an instrument of power, and this is a police regime. They are trying to scare us, so we won't come again. But, see, it isn't working this time."