Activists and journalists are demanding an investigation into beatings and arbitrary arrests made Saturday at a peaceful rally in defense of the constitutional right of assembly. People were punched and hit with police batons, dragged by their hair, pushed face-first against a police bus and half-strangled inside the bus.
Three detained men were taken to hospital from the police precincts where they were being held, while an old woman who fell to the ground after being pushed by a police officer was taken to hospital from the site of the rally — outside Gostiny Dvor on Nevsky Prospekt.
Sixty nine were detained during several waves of brutal arrests in the rally, which was part of Strategy 31, the civil campaign demanding the right to assemble peacefully that has been held across Russia since July 2009 on the 31st day of the months with 31 days. The campaign is not affiliated to any single political party.
The day was chosen by oppositional politician and author Eduard Limonov because the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, is guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution.
Since its inception, the campaign’s rallies have not once been authorized by the authorities in St. Petersburg or Moscow, where protesters gather on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad.
In St. Petersburg, an estimated 500 came to Gostiny Dvor metro station on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. The protest was launched by Andrei Dmitriyev, the local leader of Limonov’s banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), who spoke surrounded by supporters with their arms linked in order to make arrests more difficult.
“The whole country is with us today; Strategy 31 events are taking place across the country — from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad,” he shouted.
“The number 31 has become sacred for the political opposition. Article 31 is needed by all the political forces, whatever their ideology, it’s also needed by ordinary passersby.”
The protesters, many of whom wore T-shirts with the number 31 printed on them, deliberately refrained from using megaphones or banners, without which their protest could not officially be qualified as a rally.
But the police rushed to detain participants, who shouted “Russia Will Be Free” and “Freedom,” after an officer speaking into a megaphone claimed that the event was illegal and ordered people to disperse.
The police acted more brutally than during the three previous rallies held in St. Petersburg since Jan. 31. People shouted “Fascists” and “Killers” in response to the police’s actions.
Activists are trying to establish the name of one particular officer who hit a young man in the face with a rubber baton. The officer walked through the crowd shouting “F***ing animals, who else wants some?” Before this incident, he was seen dragging a young woman to a police bus by her hair.
One man, whose head was deliberately rammed into a police bus, was then seen sitting inside the bus near the window with his face covered in blood.
Although the police did not detain journalists during the previous events, three photographers were detained during Saturday’s protest, which lasted for about 40 minutes.
They were charged with “participating in a unsanctioned rally” and “disobeying police orders.” Alexander Astafyev of Moi Rayon weekly newspaper said he was detained when he took a picture of the policemen relaxing after making a wave of arrests.
“One pointed at me and said, ‘I wish you were dead,’ with a smile,” Astafyev said Monday. He was then seized by several policemen and carried to the bus, during which a policeman damaged his camera. Another photographer, Mikhail Obozov of Yevropeyets newspaper, was detained while taking a picture of an old woman lying on the ground after being pushed by a police officer.
A policeman struck Obozov’s camera lens and his photographs were deleted, Astafyev said.
The photographers, who are now waiting for their court summons, have written a complaint to the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists, he said.
Andrei Konstantinov, chair of the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists, said Monday that the detained photographers were being provided with legal support by the union.
“Our lawyers will examine what really happened and then we’ll hold a secretariat meeting and decide what our actions will be. It’s too early to issue any statements right now,” he said.
Strategy 31 events were held in 42 cities and towns across Russia on Saturday, according to the campaign’s organizers. In Moscow, 500 to 1,500 people came to Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, where the protest was also dispersed, with more than 80 people arrested, including former first deputy minister and current Solidarity democratic movement leader Boris Nemtsov.
The statement said that the police acted far more brutally in St. Petersburg than in Moscow.
In St. Petersburg, those detained were taken to four different police stations and released at about midnight, more than five hours after being detained, Dmitriyev said Sunday. Most were charged with “participating in an unsanctioned rally,” while several were also charged with “disobeying police orders,” a more serious offense punishable by up to 15 days in prison.
“The police are acting more and more roughly, with some officers breaking every limit, in particular the one who smashed the man’s head [into the bus] and dragged a young woman to the bus by her hair,” Dmitriyev said.
“We will find the people who were beaten and file complaints to the prosecutor. To stop this from happening again, we’ll invite the local ombudsman and rights activists to our next rally, scheduled for Aug. 31. Hopefully, it will dampen the rage of the uniformed men a little.”
A police spokesman declined to comment Monday.
Photos by Sergey Chernov. See his full photo reportage of the demonstration here.