Riot police in Russia detained two potential presidential candidates and more than 200 other opposition protesters at the weekend as authorities stamped out dissent a week before parliamentary elections.
Opposition leaders and protesters accused authorities in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, of overstepping the mark on Sunday by detaining all the organisers of an opposition rally minutes after they embarked on a peaceful march towards the city’s Palace Square.
Those held included Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister named as presidential candidate for the liberal Union of Right Forces, Nikita Belykh, the party’s head, and local leaders of Yabloko, another liberal party.
Police shouting “arrest everyone” detained about 100 activists hoping to take part in the march, beating several with batons and dragging away dozens of elderly women carrying white carnations and bundling them into police vans. Police said the march was unsanctioned but the protesters had been permitted to stage a rally in another location.
After a bigger rally of about 3,000 people in Moscow on Saturday, police detained Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and another potential presidential candidate.
Mr Kasparov, a leader of the Other Russia opposition coalition, which organised the protest, was later sentenced to five days in jail.
“They are cowards. They are afraid of any opposition,” Mr Nemtsov said on Sunday minutes before he was arrested.
“They have forbidden us from discussing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. But we have come here today to ask Mr Putin and the authorities, why is there so much corruption in the country?” Mr Nemtsov was released after about an hour.
His Union of Right Forces, which remains among parties approved by the Kremlin, joined Other Russia protesters for the first time this weekend after what it said was repeated harassment during its parliamentary campaign.
A week before the polls, the graceful façades of St Petersburg, hometown of Mr Putin, are plastered with placards for United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party. Campaign material for other parties is rare, and Yabloko says it was banned from hanging posters in the town.
The parliamentary elections have taken on greater significance since Mr Putin said he would head United Russia’s party list, in effect turning the vote into a referendum on his rule. Mr Putin has said the outcome will determine his “moral right” to retain influence after March 2008, when Russia’s constitution says he must step down as president.
“This is not an election. There is no one to choose from. They have cleaned the field, and all we can vote for is Putin,” said Tatyana Yevdokimova, a pensioner taking part in Sunday's rally. “But they are still afraid even of this rally.
“We are not more than 200 people. But they are afraid of us. This is a disgrace for my country,” she said of the detentions.
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