Opposition politician Alexei Navalny was one of at least 513 people arrested in ugly scenes as Russian authorities violently clamped down on a march against police corruption in Moscow.
The march, originally organised to protest against the arrest on drugs charges of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, had taken on another complexion after his unexpected release on Tuesday. That development had created a split among organisers, with only some suggesting the march should go ahead.
Organisers admitted they would be unable to guarantee protesters safety after late-night talks with Moscow authorities fell through.
The Independent understands officials refused to sanction a route that passed near police and security service headquarters.
Arrests started soon after the march set off from Chistye Prudi metro station at noon local time. At the start, only those carrying banners were targeted. As usual in such events, police told the marchers not to “obstruct the way of citizens”. Later, the arrests became more random.
The Omon riot police – “cosmonauts” as they are known colloquially, on account of their helmets – filed down in two lines before dispersing into the crowds in threes and fives. Truncheons waving, they could be seen picking off men, women, teenagers and pensioners.
“Let’s take any one of them,” one of the officers could be overheard saying in consultation with a senior, as if to emphasise the arbitrary and chaotic nature of the police operation.
Mr Navalny was one of the very early arrests. He was taken away just before 1pm local time, near a roadblock police had hastily constructed at Trubnaya metro station. (The road ahead led to the Moscow police headquarters.)
The opposition politician, whom Vladimir Putin still refuses to refer to by name, was quickly carried over peoples’ heads and into a waiting van.
He was later accused of organising an unsanctioned protest – and now faces up to 30 days’ imprisonment.
The most shocking arrest, which came about 10 minutes later, was witnessed at close hand by The Independent.
The victim, a man in his thirties, certainly appeared to be resisting a rough arrest. But the police also seemed almost deliberate in their carelessness when, on the way to the van, they rammed his head against a metal post.
“How do you sleep at night?” a woman shouted at them.
What the marchers lacked in numbers – turnout was in the low thousands – they made up in defiance. They reacted to the arrests with hissing, shrieking and chanting. Staring down at the roadblock police had assembled at Trubnaya metro station, they shouted the police’s own loudspeaker warnings back at them. ”Don’t obstruct the way of citizens,” they said.
Their other slogans were more barbed. “You can’t plant drugs on us all,” went one; “the pigs are the shame of Russia,” went another. An elderly pensioner, darting in and out among the crowds, cheekily implored marchers to “watch [their] pockets” – a reference to the practice of police planting drugs on unsuspecting victims made so famous by events of the last week.
Tackling the widespread abuse of Russia’s drugs laws was one of the key demands organisers made ahead of the march.
Journalist Ilya Azar, the original organiser of the protest, told The Independent authorities had only answered “the most basic questions”. Yes, they had released Mr Golunov and suspended a group of police officers. But the real instigators of the crime, who are likely to sit much higher up the chain of command, “have not been touched”.
The journalist said he was disappointed but not shocked by the crackdown of his march.
“Nothing in my country surprises me,” he said. ”But if yesterday, the government showed us a reasonable face, today it showed us that nothing has changed.”
Mr Azar was himself arrested shortly after, at 3.30pm local time.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies