MOSCOW (AP) – Police in Moscow on Saturday detained about 200 people attending a forum of independent city council members amid widespread crackdown by Russian authorities on dissent.
The police appeared shortly after the opening of the gathering in a Moscow hotel, saying that all those arrested for taking part in the event organized by the “unwanted” organization. The police officer in charge of the raid said that the detainees would be taken to police stations and charged with administrative offenses.
A statement from Moscow police said they had stopped the meeting because it violated coronavirus restrictions, as many of the participants were unable to wear masks. They said about 200 participants had been detained, some of them allegedly members of an uncertain “undesirable” organization.
OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors arrests and political repression, has placed a list of more than 180 detainees. Among them was Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician who heads one of Moscow’s city districts. Former Mayor of Yekaterinburg Eugene Roizmann; and Yulia Galyamina, a member of the Moscow City Council.
Police began releasing the detainees after they were charged by a court with participating in the activities of an “undesirable” organization, a crime punishable by a fine. It was unclear how many people remained in police custody on Saturday night.
“Their aim was to intimidate people into not engaging in politics,” said Andrei Pivovarov, a politician who took part in the forum, in a video shot in a police van.
Pivovarov played a leading role in Open Russia, a group funded by self-exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky was transferred to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges of challenging President Vladimir Putin as a political avenger.
The 2015 law criminalized membership in “undesirable” organizations. The government used the law to ban about 30 groups, including Open Russia.
An earlier law required NGOs that receive foreign funding, engage in freely politically motivated activities, and register as “foreign agents.”
The laws have been widely criticized as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to stifle dissent, but Russian authorities have described them as a response to alleged Western efforts to undermine the country.
Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Saturday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most determined political enemy was arrested on January 17 after returning from Germany, where he recovered five months after being poisoned by a nerve agent he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have denied the allegations.
Last month, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating probation during his recovery in Germany. Accusations he denied as a Kremlin vendetta. His arrest and imprisonment sparked a wave of protests across Russia, to which the authorities responded with massive pressure.
The government has stepped up pressure on the opposition ahead of the September parliamentary elections as the Kremlin-backed United Russia party has lost popularity.