Riot police in Moscow made mass arrests on Saturday in an attempt to quash a protest rally that had been banned by authorities.
The rally was the latest episode of a nascent protest movement, triggered by a refusal to let opposition candidates stand in Moscow parliamentary elections, which has led to the biggest political protests in Russia for years.
Within the first two hours of the protest on Saturday afternoon, police had detained almost 200 people, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-info. The Russian capital was on lockdown as authorities closed off access to the central boulevard ring, where protesters wanted to march, blocked mobile internet reception in large parts of the capital and kept an eye on protesters from a helicopter overhead.
Lyubov Sobol, the only opposition politician who wanted to stand in September elections not currently in jail, was detained by police before she could even arrive at the protest.
Sobol, who is three weeks into a hunger strike in protest at the lack of access to the ballot, gingerly emerged from her campaign headquarters to get into a waiting taxi, but was pulled out by riot police, who dragged her to a waiting bus while she shouted out in protest.
Several restaurants and shops along the boulevard were closed for the day, and riot police officers wore balaclavas, a measure usually reserved for high-profile drugs and extremism cases, after protesters identified several police officers after last week’s protest using online facial identification software.
Protesters said they were concerned that the authorities were provoking a clash with police. One protester, who gave her name as Lyudmila, pointed at the barricades. “Moscow has been occupied,” she joked.
One father, who was attending the protest with his two school-aged daughters, said he was worried about the possibility of violence. “But it’s important to show we are not afraid,” he said. He asked not to be named.
As the protest was spread out over a large area, it was hard to gauge the number of people who had turned out, though initial estimates suggested it may have fallen short of the numbers who turned out last weekend, for a rally outside the Moscow mayoralty that saw the harshest police crackdown in Russia for nearly a decade.
Then, more than 1,300 people were detained by police, and although most of them were released soon after, authorities have made it clear they are planning a major crackdown. They have launched a case against 10 protesters for causing “mass unrest”, which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years, and have also threatened to search for draft-dodgers among men detained at the protest.
On Saturday, Russia’s investigative committee also announced it was launching a money laundering investigation into the Anti-Corruption Foundation, run by leading opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who is currently in jail.