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Riot police and special forces used excessive force to break up a peaceful demonstration in Moscow on April 14, beating numerous demonstrators and detaining hundreds, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on Moscow authorities to investigate the use of force by police and to protect peaceful demonstrators.

“This police violence is only the latest example of growing government hostility toward peaceful dissent in Russia,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It has to be viewed in the context of intensifying harassment of the political opposition, human rights defenders, and independent media in Russia.”

Organizers of the demonstration, the “Dissenters’ March,” had applied for authorization to gather at noon on Pushkin Square in central Moscow and march to Turgenev Square. However, they had only received a permit to hold an event on Turgenev Square, a smaller, less visible and less centrally located site. In denying the permit, the Moscow city authorities stated that they had already permitted the “Young Guard,” a pro-Putin youth movement, to hold an event on Pushkin Square at that same time. Pushkin Square, one kilometer from the Kremlin, is large and transversed by a major intersection, raising questions as to why both groups could not have been accommodated with police separating them to prevent interaction between the groups.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov later said that city authorities do not allow marches or processions of any kind.

“The refusal to allow the Dissenters’ March appears politically motivated,” said Cartner. “Authorities say they denied the permit to prevent clashes between two groups, but ensuring public safety shouldn't be used to silence dissent.”

Organizers of the Dissenters’ March announced their intent to go forward with the event as planned, despite the ban on meeting at Pushkin Square. Moscow authorities declared that they would take all necessary measures to block the banned event. Hundreds of riot police blocked all access to Pushkin Square on April 14, keeping small groups of demonstrators, press, and observers on the sidewalks. Police trucks and buses lined both sides of the street abutting the square. Police detained numerous demonstrators as they attempted to reach the meeting site and loaded them into buses to take them to police stations. According to several reports received by Human Rights Watch, some groups of demonstrators were detained by police in their home cities as they attempted to travel to Moscow on the eve of the event to prevent them from participating. According to official sources, the authorities deployed 9,000 riot police and special forces to control the march and several other small political meetings.

Observers from Human Rights Watch witnessed riot police charge a small group of protestors as they chanted “Russia without Putin!” and “Freedom!” and beat several of them, including an elderly man, with truncheons. The demonstrators did not offer any resistance or use any violence.

“The riot police beat peaceful demonstrators to silence their views,” Cartner said. “The police response was excessive and disproportionate, even if they did violate a permit.”

A group of approximately 300 demonstrators eventually gathered and attempted to walk toward Turgenev Square, the site of the sanctioned event. At approximately 1 p.m., several blocks outside Pushkin Square, representatives of Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of special forces and riot police cordon off both sides of the street, blocking the group on all sides. One witness in the group recounted to Human Rights Watch that riot police beat some demonstrators and members of the media, causing several serious injuries. Human Rights Watch did not observe or receive any reports of resistance or violence used by the demonstrators. Police detained many people from the group, using buses to take them to police stations.

At Turgenev Square, approximately 1,000 people convened for a demonstration that appeared to remain peaceful. Riot police and city police officers surrounded the square on all sides, largely blocking any view from the surrounding streets, and tightly restricted access to the event, which they dispersed at 2 p.m.

According to official sources, police detained at least 250 people during the day. A doctor from city medical clinic #137, near Turgenev Square, reported that 54 demonstrators had come to the clinic seeking treatment for injuries sustained from being beaten by the police.

One of the organizers of the event, Garry Kasparov, head of the United Civic Front, was detained by police early in the day and taken to court in the late afternoon, where he was apparently being tried on administrative charges for yelling anti-government slogans. He had not been released by late evening.

Human Rights Watch received reports from activists at the Presnenskaya police station, where Kasparov was held, that they witnessed police officers beating Kasparov supporters who stood outside, and dragging several of them into the police station by their hair.

Although many demonstrators who had been detained were subsequently released, by late evening at least two groups of demonstrators in two different locations were still being held.

The Dissenters’ March is the third such event in recent months to be suppressed or violently dispersed by the police. Other marches were held in St. Petersburg and Nizhni Novgorod. A march planned in St. Petersburg on April 15, 2007 has also been banned by the authorities. Participants in the Dissenters’ Marches include the “Other Russia” coalition, the recently banned National Bolshevik party.

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