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Rights monitor: Police detain over 1,000 people at anti-Putin protests

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was himself detained, had called on Kremlin critics to take to the streets ahead of Putin’s inauguration for a fourth presidential term.

Russian police officers detain a protester during an unauthorised anti-Putin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on 5 May 2018 in Moscow. Picture: AFP.

MOSCOW - Police in Russia on Saturday detained over 1,000 people across the country at protests against President Vladimir Putin, the OVD-Info human rights monitor said.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was himself detained, had called on Kremlin critics to take to the streets ahead of Putin’s inauguration for a fourth presidential term to register their opposition to what Navalny says is Putin’s autocratic tsar-like rule.

The monitor, OVD-Info, wrote on social media that it had received reports that at least 1,029 people had been detained in 19 different cities across the country. It said 475 of the detentions had taken place in Moscow.

Navalny had called for demonstrations in more than 90 towns and cities across Russia against what he says is Putin’s autocratic, tsar-like rule.

“We will force the authorities, made up of swindlers and thieves, to consider the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin,” Navalny said beforehand.

Putin overwhelmingly won re-election in March, extending his grip over Russia for six more years - a tenure of 24 years that would make him Moscow’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Navalny, who was barred from running in the election on what he says was a false pretext, was detained soon after showing up on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where young people chanted “Russia without Putin!” and “Down with the Tsar!”.

Video footage showed five policemen hauling him to a waiting van by his arms and legs, a scene that was repeated dozens of times with his supporters. Moscow police said he had been detained for organising an unsanctioned rally.

“NOTHING WILL CHANGE”

Navalny, who has been detained and jailed numerous times for organising similar protests, had managed to address his supporters briefly, saying he was glad they had shown up.

One protester in Moscow, donning a rabbit’s mask with the legend “Tsar of the Animals” said he was unsure what the protest would achieve.

“I have the feeling that people are gathering just to let off steam and that nothing will change,” said the 31-year-old man called Alexander, who declined to give his surname.

OVD-Info, a rights organisation that monitors detentions, said it had received reports of police detaining over 1,000 people across Russia, nearly 500 of them in Moscow. It cited its own sources at the Moscow protest as saying pro-Kremlin Cossacks had beaten protesters with leather whips, sparking a fight.

A police spokesman said around 1,500 people had protested in Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported. Reuters reporters estimated the crowd numbered several thousand.

Protests also took place in the Far East, Siberia and St Petersburg. In the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, around 1,500km east of Moscow, a Reuters reporter saw more than 1,000 people protesting, some shouting “Down with the Tsar!”

FATHER OF THE NATION

Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000.

Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating of around 80%, he is lauded by supporters as a father-of-the-nation figure who has restored national pride and expanded Moscow’s global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine.

The authorities regard most of the protests as illegal, arguing that their time and place was not approved beforehand and that the police have a duty to protect public order.

Putin has dismissed Navalny as a troublemaker bent on sowing chaos on behalf of Washington. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin ally, has called Navalny a political charlatan.

Putin is due to be inaugurated on Monday in a Kremlin ceremony heavy on pomp.

With more than 56 million votes, almost 77% of the total, his March election win was his biggest ever and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader, something he and his allies say gave him an unequivocal mandate to govern.

European observers said there had been no real choice in the election and complained of unfair pressure on critical voices. Critics like Navalny accuse Putin of overseeing a corrupt authoritarian system and of annexing Ukraine’s Crimea illegally in 2014, a move that isolated Russia internationally.

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