Thousands of protesters defy Putin's crackdown on public order

 

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Thousands of anti-government protesters marched through central Moscow yesterday in the first mass demonstration since President Vladimir Putin's inauguration in May.

The rally came despite the recent crackdown on dissent. Last week, the Kremlin approved legislation that dramatically increases penalties for people who take part in protests that violate public-order rules, while on Monday authorities mounted raids on houses belonging to several high-profile opposition leaders.

The flag-waving crowd, which spanned the political spectrum from anarchists to nationalists, packed a divided road a short walk from the Kremlin and at some points stretched as far as the eye could see. Police put the number of demonstrators at about 18,000, while protest organisers said it could have been as high as 200,000.

The number was evidently large enough for Mr Putin to take notice. In official remarks to commemorate the Russia Day holiday, Mr Putin appeared to make an appeal to the protesters. "Anything that weakens the country or divides society is unacceptable," he said.

Unlike the last rally in early May, which quickly turned into a bloody melee with riot police and ended in 400 detentions, Tuesday's rally saw no detentions or legal violations, police said.

While opposition activists addressed the crowd, several prominent leaders, including Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak, faced questions from investigators in connection with the May rally. On Monday, investigators raided apartments linked to opposition leaders, seizing computers and mobile phones.

The detentions were part of an apparent crackdown that included a new law on demonstrations that raised fines for participating in illegal rallies 150-fold, from 2,000 rubles (£40) to 300,000 rubles (£5,970). Lawmakers with the ruling United Russia Party, which passed the bill over opposition led by the Communist and A Just Russia parties, said the measure was needed to ensure law and order.

While the fallout from May's bloody march may have kept some away from yesterday's rally, the apparent crackdown had the opposite effect on others. Karina Semenenko, 22, said the searches prompted her to attend a mass opposition rally for the first time. "It was right out of 1937," she said.

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