Protesters in Moscow braved a heavy ice-storm that paralyzed parts of the city to gather in a downtown square on Tuesday evening in protest against what opposition leaders say is a concerted crackdown on dissent by security forces.
“If we do not stand up to be counted, we will face a long, political winter,” Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov told a rally in Moscow’s Novopushinskaya Square, just a short walk from the Kremlin. “This is a challenge to society and we have to answer it.”
Protesters, huddled under umbrellas as icy rain lashed down, held aloft photographs of some two dozen people that protest leaders say are “political prisoners” jailed for their opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s almost 13-year-rule.
Moscow police said up to 800 people attended the sanctioned rally, while Udaltsov put the crowd at “around 2,500.” Udaltsov and opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny were both briefly detained at an anti-torture protest in central Moscow on Saturday and charged with public order offenses.
The rally came amid a growing row over a Left Front activist who said he was abducted in the capital of Ukraine Kiev on October 19 by “masked men” while applying for refugee status at a UN office and then tortured for two days into signing a confession that he had plotted to overthrow Putin.
Leonid Razvozzhayev told human rights workers who visited him last week in a Moscow pre-trial detention center that his abductors had held him in the basement of a residential building for two days without food or water and threatened to kill him and his children if he did not confess.
Investigators say Razvozzhayev handed himself into their Moscow HQ and was in his “right mind” when he signed a ten-page confession. Investigation Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said last week that the torture claims were being looked into.
Razvozzhayev retracted his confession on Thursday, when his lawyer was permitted to visit him for the first time since his arrest.
The charges stem from footage broadcast on the pro-Kremlin NTV channel on October 5 that purported to show Udaltsov, Razvozzhayev, and a third activist, Konstantin Lebedev, meeting with Georgian politician Givi Targamadze in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to discuss plans to seize power in cities across Russia, including the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.
Udaltsov says the footage is fake and part of what he has dubbed “a new wave of repression” against the leaders of the now 10-month old anti-Putin protest movement.
Udaltsov was charged on Friday with plotting mass disorder and released on a pledge not to leave Moscow. Lebedev has been in custody since earlier this month. All the suspects face up to ten years behind bars if found guilty.
Tuesday’s protest came on the day that Russian commemorates the victims of political repression. Around 30,000 people were killed in Moscow alone in 1937-38, the height of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s purges. Millions more perished in the labor camps of the Gulag or in political purges during the Soviet era.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday that Stalin had “waged war” against his own nation. “This must never happen again,” he said.
But protesters at Tuesday’s demonstration said they feared Russia was slipping back into its totalitarian past.
“The authorities are destroying their political opponents and prohibiting freedom of speech,” a retiree, Galina Konstantinova, said at the rally. “Just like they did in the Soviet era.”
Navalny also faces ten years in jail after investigators reopened a 2009 large-scale embezzlement case this summer and brought charges. The case had already been probed twice without charges being brought.
A number of other opposition figures have also faced legal problems since Putin returned to the Kremlin amid violent protests in May. But Putin has denied a crackdown on protest leaders, saying everyone “must comply with Russian law.”
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