Russian police arrested almost 1,400 people as they gathered in Moscow at the weekend to demand free and fair elections, a monitor said, the biggest crackdown on a rally in the country in years.
Some 3,500 people took part in the unauthorized protest on Saturday, according to official figures, after authorities blocked prominent opposition candidates from taking part in city elections. Police used batons on protesters as they tried to gather outside city hall, and AFP reporters at the scene saw demonstrators with injuries.
The rally comes amid wider public frustration over declining living standards that has hit President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings.
A week before, 22,000 took to the streets in a sanctioned protest, calling on authorities to reverse their decision ahead of the September city council vote. After that demonstration, investigators raided the homes and headquarters of a number of disqualified candidates.
Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was jailed for 30 days for calling the fresh protest. Several would-be candidates were detained before or during the protest on Saturday. Navalny’s team has called for another rally next weekend.
OVD-Info, an organization that monitors protests, reported Sunday that 1,373 people were arrested. It said this was the highest number since mass demonstrations in 2012, when tens of thousands protested Putin’s return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
“The authorities have lost all sense of reason. They are behaving in a way that is almost sadistic,” Ilya Yashin, a barred opposition candidate, wrote on Twitter late Saturday.
The US embassy in Moscow denounced the use of what it said was “disproportionate police force”.
The violence and arrests “undermine rights of citizens to participate in the democratic process,” embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan wrote in a tweet.
The EU said police actions undermined “the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly,” while Amnesty International also criticized the crackdown.
Elections to Moscow’s 45-seat legislative body, currently controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, are due to be held in six weeks. 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.
Following 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, organizers risk up to five years in prison. 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 power.