August 31, 2010 / 4:32 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-Dozens detained at anti-Kremlin rallies

* Protesters seized in Moscow and St. Petersburg

* Demonstrations follow warning from Putin

(Adds more than 150 detained, London demonstration)

By Conor Humphries

MOSCOW, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Russian police detained more than 150 people including prominent opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at anti-Kremlin protests on Tuesday, after Putin said demonstrators without permits could expect harsh treatment.

In Moscow, police detained opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and dozens of other protesters who defied authorities by gathering on a central square declared off-limits last week. Protesters shouted “Shame!” and “Russia without Putin!”

Police dragged protesters through the crowd on Triumph Square and shoved them into buses, carrying some who tried to resist or twisting their arms behind their backs.

Opposition leaders and rights activists have been converging there on the 31st of each month, symbolising the right to free assembly guaranteed in Article 31 of Russia’s constitution.

The protests have become a major focus of opposition, and the police response is seen as a barometer of the Kremlin’s willingness to tolerate dissent. Police have detained protesters each time, with varying degrees of force.

Putin robustly defended police crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in an interview published on Monday. “Go without permission, and you will be hit on the head with batons. That’s all there is to it,” he said.

About 70 people were detained in Moscow, police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said at the scene. Police in St. Petersburg said 79 were detained on the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, and 11 at a protest on the imperial-era capital’s Palace Square.

Rallies were held in other cities, and Ekho Moskvy radio said several people were detained in Rostov-on-Don in the south.

IT’S MY COUNTRY

In Moscow, where police vastly outnumbered what Biryukov said were about 400 protesters, officers in bulletproof vests dragged Nemtsov away after he started handing out copies of a report criticising Putin at the edge of the square.

The police presence appeared bigger than at previous demonstrations, with dozens of troop trucks and other vehicles blocking open areas of the square.

Opposition politicians Eduard Limonov and Ilya Yashin were among the detainees. Veteran activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 83, told Reuters police threatened her and 15 others with detention as they walked on the square, calling it an “illegal march”.

A 64-year-old woman raised a banner reading “Free the Constitution, Save Russia” on the steps of a concert hall and held it defiantly near a line of riot police. An officer seized it after a tug-of-war in which the woman lost her crutch.

“I’m not afraid. Why should I be afraid? It’s my country,” the woman, pensioner Lyudmila Lyubomudrova, told Reuters.

Moscow authorities declared Triumph Square off-limits for demonstrations and closed off its centre last week to make way for construction of an underground car park. Opposition groups said the abrupt closure was a pretext to prevent protests.

Authorities have justified crackdowns on previous protests on the square by saying the demonstrators lacked official permission. Activists say the constitutional protection of free assembly means prior permission is not required.

Russia’s opposition is hampered by apathy, state control over the media and the popularity of Putin, who presided over a period of oil-fuelled growth during his 2000-2008 presidency.

Detentions and rough treatment at the demonstrations have drawn criticism from the United States and European governments.

“There are hundreds of police and to us it looks disproportionate,” Thijs Berman, a Dutch member of the European Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, said at Triumph Square just before the rally. “It begs the question: what is such a big country as Russia afraid of?”

A few dozen people, many of them Russians, demonstrated outside Russia’s embassy in London, chanting “Freedom! Freedom!”

Demonstrators included tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who is now a fierce foe, and the widow of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security officer who died in London in 2006 from poisoning with radioactive polonium.

Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow, Denis Pinchuk in St. Petersburg and Maria Golovnina in London; editing by Steve Gutterman and Peter Graff

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