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Russian investigators on Tuesday opened criminal proceedings related to an opposition protest in Moscow over the weekend that was violently suppressed by police in what UN officials described as an excessive use of force.
Police rounded up more than 1,000 people in Moscow on Saturday in one of the biggest crackdowns of recent years against an increasingly defiant opposition decrying President Vladimir Putin‘s tight grip on power.
The unauthorised rally had been called in protest at the exclusion of opposition politicians from local elections later this year.
On Tuesday, the first deputy of Russia’s Prosecutor General warned against further unauthorised protests, saying they should be met with a tough crackdown.
“Prosecutors should in a severe manner prevent the actions of organisers and participants in illegal and unsanctioned public rallies,” prosecutor Alexander Buksman was quoted as saying by state news agency RIA Novosti.
He also urged extra vigilance in the run-up to the local elections, scheduled for September.
Rupert Colville, the United Nations human rights spokesman, has criticised the crackdown and questioned the disqualification of 57 opposition or independent candidates from the elections, which sparked the mass protest.
“We are concerned that the Russian police appear to have used excessive force against the protesters during the rally in central Moscow on Saturday,” Colville told a briefing.
“When managing crowds in Russia as anywhere else, use of force by the police should always be proportionate to the threat, if there is one, and should only be employed as a measure of last resort,” he said.
Regarding the commission’s move to disqualify candidates for alleged forgery of voters’ signatures, he said: “The issue here is whether really all these 57 candidates should have been excluded, whether it was a cast-iron case that these signatures were forged.
“And the fact that they were all either opposition or independent candidates has fuelled the notion among the demonstrators certainly that something is not correct here,” Colville added.
‘Fear of appearing weak’
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, police jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny for 30 days and detained a number of popular independent politicians who have fought to get on the ballot.
They included the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, Ivan Zhdanov, who on Monday was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
Prominent opposition politician and another would-be candidate Ilya Yashin said Tuesday he had been sentenced to a further 10 days in jail, after receiving a 10-day sentence the day before.
According to analyst Arnaud Dubien, head of the Franco-Russian Observatory, the crackdown reflects an ingrained political culture that tends to “perceive the opposition in general as a factor of division and a threat to national unity”.
“Much of Russia’s ruling class is convinced that protesters and opposition members like Navalny are manipulated by the West in the context of a ‘hybrid war’ that aims for regime change in Moscow,” Dubien told FRANCE 24.
“Furthermore, there is a fear of appearing weak, because in Russia to make concessions is to appear weak,” Dubien added.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)