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'Honestly, I'm scared': Over 1,000 people arrested at Moscow rally for fair elections

The rally came a week after the capital’s biggest demonstration in years.

Police officers detaining a man during today's rally in Moscow
Police officers detaining a man during today's rally in Moscow
Image: Alexander Zemlianichenko via PA Images

Updated Jul 28th 2019, 8:05 AM

RUSSIAN POLICE HAVE arrested more than 1,000 people who gathered in Moscow to demand free and fair elections yesterday.

Around 3,500 people took to the streets for the unauthorised rally, according to official figures.

Several of the arrests were violent and police used batons against protesters, AFP reporters at the scene saw.

In all, “1,074 people have been arrested for a variety of offences during an unauthorised demonstration in the centre of the capital”, police officials were quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

The rally comes a week after the capital’s biggest demonstration in years, when some 22,000 people protested the authorities’ decision to block opposition candidates from standing for the city council in September. 

Investigators raided the homes and headquarters of several disqualified candidates in the run-up to the fresh rally yesterday.

Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was jailed for 30 days for calling for the demonstration. 

Other leading opposition figures and would-be candidates were also arrested in the hours leading up to the event, which comes amid declining living standards and a fall in President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings.

“Honestly, I’m scared,” one person told AFP at the demonstration. 

He said the last time he had seen this level of pressure on activists was in 2012, when Putin’s return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister sparked a wave of protests.

Russia Opposition Protest Protesters clash with police during the rally Source: Pavel Golovkin via PA Images

‘We want free elections’

Local polls are a rare opportunity for dissenting voices to participate in political life as anti-Kremlin parties have been squeezed out of parliament over Putin’s two decades in charge.

Security was tight in central Moscow and police shut down the area outside city hall where protesters were planning to gather, forcing participants out onto side streets.

“This is our city!”, “Shame!” and “We want free elections,” the crowd chanted as police blocked off the site.

Politician and disqualified candidate Dmitry Gudkov was arrested shortly before yesterday’s march. Earlier he had said the future of the country was at stake. He has been released this evening.

“If we lose now, elections will cease to exist as a political instrument,” he said. 

“What we’re talking about is whether it’s legal to participate in politics today in Russia, we’re talking about the country we’re going to live in.”

Russia Opposition Protest Police officers detain an opposition candidate and lawyer at the Foundation for Fighting Corruption Lyubov Sobol prior to the rally Source: Dmitry Serebryakov via PA Images

While pro-Kremlin candidates enjoy the support of the state, independent candidates say they have been made to jump through countless hoops in order to get on the ballot for the city polls.

After activists and ordinary Muscovites staged pickets last week, including outside the local election commission building, investigators said they were launching a criminal probe into obstructing the work of election officials. 

If found guilty, organisers risk up to five years in prison.

‘Afraid all my life’

Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov said he had been arrested shortly ahead of yesterday’s demonstration. Barred candidate Ilya Yashin meanwhile announced he was detained in the early hours of yesterday morning following a raid on his home. He has since been released.

Would-be candidate Lyubov Sobol, who this week launched a hunger strike, was arrested at the demonstration before also being later released and fined 30,000 rubles .

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin called the unauthorised protest a “security threat”, adding that “order will be ensured according to the relevant laws”. 

Elena Rastovka, a 68-year-old pensioner at the demonstration, told AFP: “I’ve been afraid all my life, but enough is enough. If we stay at home, nothing will change.

Authorities arrest people who want to challenge them. Look at what they’re doing – the authorities do not like the people.

Some said it was the authorities’ heavy response that had turned a local issue into a major protest movement. 

 

© – AFP 2019

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