Over 400 arrested at Moscow police abuse march

Russian police officers detain a protestor during a march to protest against the alleged impunity of law enforcement agencies in central Moscow on Wednesday. — AFP

MOSCOW — More than 400 people including Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained in Moscow on Wednesday, a monitor said, as authorities sought to break up a rally urging police reform after the framing of a journalist on drugs charges.

Many Russians had hoped to harness the widespread outrage over last week's arrest of respected reporter Ivan Golunov on trumped-up drugs charges to press for genuine reform of Russia's tainted law enforcement and justice systems.

But a much smaller crowd of protesters had turned up in central Moscow on Russia Day, a public holiday, amid fierce divisions among liberals.

Police in riot gear moved in against the unsanctioned march at which some protesters chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin.

Police manhandled some protesters and beat others with truncheons amid shouts of "you are criminals" and "stop police terror."

As police dragged protesters into vans the crowd yelled: "Shame, on Russia Day, this is our country's day! Have you forgotten the constitution?"

OVD Info, which tracks arrests, said more than 400 people were detained. Moscow police said earlier around 1,200 took part in the march and more than 200 people were arrested.

Navalny faces up to 30 days in jail, his spokeswoman said.

At the march the protesters said senior officials behind Golunov's case should be punished and called for broad reform of police and courts.

Many called for the release of victims of police abuse and political prisoners including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

Golunov, who investigated corruption among security services and Moscow officials, was framed in what was seen as punishment for his investigative work.

Two senior police including an official in charge of drug control in Moscow are expected to be dismissed.

Golunov's case presents a major headache for Putin who has in recent months been struggling with low approval ratings amid economic trouble and rising poverty.

His arrest sparked a public outcry and triggered unprecedented solidarity among media, with three top newspapers publishing the same front page: "I am/we are Ivan Golunov" in giant letters on Monday.

Wednesday's march was initially called to press for the release of Golunov who was then suddenly freed, with the charges against him dropped, on the eve of the rally.

Many saw Golunov's release as a Kremlin attempt to avert the new protest wave.

- 'Contempt for solidarity and rights' -

Before Golunov's release 25,000 people had expressed interest in the solidarity march on Facebook.

But in a controversial move, Meduza's senior editors and several other top journalists urged Muscovites to call off the protest after Golunov's release, triggering a storm of criticism.

A large crowd of Muscovites including a number of prominent Russians turned up regardless.

Some of the protesters wore T-shirts in support of Golunov. One detained activist brandished a placard saying, "I am Ivan Golunov" in the window of a police van.

A number of journalists were detained including a producer for the German news magazine Dr Spiegel.

"The authorities are very much scared of the fantastic and unanimous display of solidarity in the Golunov case," Navalny said on Twitter.

"So it's important for them to destroy common solidarity and then intimidate and put in prison those who insist (on reforms)."

Amnesty International accused the Russian authorities of "contempt for solidarity and rights."

Many protesters said the journalist's case had struck a nerve because nearly everyone could find himself in his place.

"What happened to Ivan Golunov happens every day all across the country. A lot of drug cases happen like this," said 15-year-old Yegor, who wore an "I am Golunov" T-shirt.

"We were lucky that Ivan was freed but it was a small victory — we haven't won the war."

In the center of the second city of Saint Petersburg, around 100 people gathered, urging authorities to release victims of police abuse such as respected historian Yury Dmitriyev.

"We should not lull ourselves into complacency," said local lawmaker Maksim Reznik.

After Golunov's release many said they would not march and some expressed anger over raging divisions, saying the authorities had once again managed to split dissenting Russians.

During his two decades in power, Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.

The few independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, Kremlin critics say.

Rights activists say authorities routinely use trumped-up drugs, extremism and other charges to silence critics with jail sentences. — AFP