Police detained hundreds of protesters at an opposition gathering in Moscow on Saturday, as authorities upped the pressure on top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny by launching a criminal probe into his anti-graft group.
Crowds of people marched in the capital’s central boulevards for a protest “stroll” over the refusal by officials to let a number of opposition candidates run in September polls for city parliament seats.
Most of those candidates and opposition leaders, including Navalny, are being held by police following a protest rally last weekend, in which 1,400 demonstrators were detained — one of the biggest crackdowns in years.
On Saturday, riot police were deployed in large numbers in central Moscow, some shops and cafes were shut, metal barriers were erected and the mobile internet was down for many hours.
About 600 people were detained during the course of the rally, police and the independent protest monitor OVD-Info said. Some were journalists with accreditations.
Police said only 1,500 people took part in the gathering. Some correspondents said the figure was much higher but a precise estimate was difficult as the protest was spread over several neighbourhoods.
Journalists observed dozens of arrests along the route of the protest, as lines of police broke up the flow of the crowd by blocking it with a human chain and grabbing people indiscriminately.
Lyubov Sobol, an ally of opposition leader Navalny and currently three weeks into a hunger strike after being barred from taking part in the election, was dragged from a taxi and detained as she set off for the rally.
Many opposition leaders who attempted to run in the polls next month argue that the authorities have arbitrarily declared signatures they gathered to qualify invalid.
People in the crowd on Saturday said they just wanted the opposition to have a chance to compete.
Navalny and other protest leaders say corruption is rife in the capital. His anti-corruption foundation FBK this week published a new investigation into the affairs of a senior official, accusing her of selling prime Moscow property to family members at rock-bottom prices.
But on Saturday, FBK itself became a target of a probe into “laundering” a billion roubles ($15.3 million). Employees of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption (FBK) “received a large sum of money from third parties which they knew was procured illegally”, investigators claimed.