RUSSIAN riot police detained four leading opposition figures yesterday to prevent them taking part in a banned rally against president Vladimir Putin in front of the former KGB headquarters in the capital.
Thousands of opposition supporters gathered to mark a year of massive protests against the Putin government.
The turnout was far smaller than the tens of thousands who filled Moscow streets in protests that erupted after fraud-plagued parliamentary elections last December.
Soon after Putin returned to the presidency in May, Russia passed a law that dramatically increased the fines for participating in unauthorised gatherings.
Despite the risk of arrest, protesters stood clapping. Some chanted “Free political prisoners” and “Down with the police state”. One unfurled a banner saying “crooks and thieves” – the popular name used to describe Russia’s leadership.
Leftist Sergei Udaltsov and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny were detained on the central Lubyanka Square, where witnesses said about 2,000 people gathered. Protest leaders Ilya Yashin and Ksenia Sobchak were detained on their way to the protest outside the former secret police base.
Moscow city authorities refused to authorise the protest and police in helmets and flak jackets told people to leave as they gathered for the rally despite the freezing cold.
“I don’t know how many people are here but I am proud of each and every one of those who came here. The main thing is that people are here, that they are expressing their view and showing that they exist,” Navalny told reporters.
One protester, a translator who gave her name only as Anna, brought her prayer book with her.
“I’m praying for Russia. God made us free. No-one can take that from us, or punish, detain or torture us for our political views,” she said.
Last year’s demonstrations accelerated the birth of a civil society two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but opposition leaders accuse Putin of clamping down on dissent and freedom of expression since he began his new presidential term.
Laws passed since May broaden the definition of treason, increase the punishment for protesters who step out of line, and tighten control over the internet and on campaign groups that get foreign funding.