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November 20, 2009
Activists protest arrest of opposition leader in Russia

Photo credit: Flickr user argenberg Moscow’s Triumph Square. Photo: argenberg

November has not been a good month for Russia’s political opposition.

A number of activists have been detained in recent days, including the outspoken writer and activist Eduard Limonov, who was picked up for participating in an “unsanctioned rally” in Moscow on October 31. Limonov is now serving 10 days of administrative arrest.

On Nov. 16, police detained eight other activists who were demonstrating in support of Limonov.

Their arrests may not have been accidental. Activists from the opposition Solidarity movement say they have uncovered a high-level police memo ordering officers to disrupt the protests. The memo, photographed with a cell phone, is posted on the blog of activist Ilya Yashin.

Signed by an officer in the police force, the memo is directed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center to Prevent Extremism. It informs the Center about plans by Solidarity activists to carry out a series of individual pickets near the detention facility where Limonov is being held, and the police force’s intent to take measures against the “unsanctioned” meetings.

At the center of the controversy: the right to freedom of assembly, as provided by article 31 of the Russian Federation’s Constitution, which states “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.”

In practice, however, the right to freedom of assembly in Russia has been severely curtailed in recent years. To reassert the public’s right to gather freely, Limonov and his followers have been organizing protests on the 31st of every month at 6 pm in front of Moscow’s Triumph Square.

What’s interesting about the protests against Limonov’s detention on the 16th is that they were planned as individual actions – pickets by one person alone do not need official approval to proceed.

However, when Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Prime Minister turned opposition figure, went out on the street to picket, he reportedly was joined by two men in hooded jackets – which brought the number of protesters to three, making it an “unsanctioned” protest. Nemtsov was subsequently detained by police.

But the same two men reportedly then joined activist Vladimir Milov, whom police also detained. The hooded men walked away free, and went on to disrupt two other protesters, Aleksandr Ryklin and Sergei Zhavoronkov. RFERL has posted a slide show of the pickets and arrests.

Meanwhile, the Communist party has taken up Limonov’s cause in Parliament and 34 Russian writers and publicists have published an open letter on his behalf, arguing that “Eduard Limonov…should not have to undergo arrest in order to realize his constitutional right to the freedom of assembly.”

If the police are in fact fabricating protests in order to have a pretext to arrest activists, it’s a sorry state of affairs indeed.

– Christine Kiernan

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