Kremlin defends crackdown

MOSCOW Mon Apr 16, 2007 8:52pm BST

1 of 3. Opposition leader and former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov speaks during an interview during a broadcast on Ekho Moskvy radio in Moscow April 16, 2007. The Kremlin on Monday justified police who dispersed opposition rallies at the weekend, saying they were trying to stop ultra-radicals from violating law and order, while the radical opposition vowed to hold new protests. Kasyanov pledged the fight against the immoral regime would continue.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin on Monday defended the police's tough action against weekend opposition rallies, saying they had to stop "ultra-radicals" from violating law and order, but the radical opposition vowed to hold new protests.

Germany, currently holding the presidency of the European Union, said earlier on Monday the crackdown on anti-Kremlin protesters and media was "unacceptable" and demanded Moscow explain its actions.

The United States voiced "deep concern" over how authorities broke up the demonstrations, calling it "heavy-handed ... and an emerging pattern of use of excessive force".

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said the events "form part of a growing crackdown on opposition forces in Russia ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2007 and early 2008".

Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: "Taking into account previous experience of actions by the ultra-radicals, the main objective pursued by the police was to ensure lawfulness and order during the conduct of these events.

"The participants of these rallies did not always stick to the parameters which were set for them when they were given permission (to hold the rallies). That was the reason for those measures that were taken by the police."

Russian police detained hundreds of people in Moscow, including chess champion Garry Kasparov, on Saturday as they dispersed an attempt by President Vladimir Putin's opponents to hold "a march of the discontented" near the Kremlin.

Police also took journalists, including German television reporters, into custody, prompting a complaint by the German embassy in Moscow.

On Sunday, riot police beat and chased anti-Kremlin protesters through the heart of Russia's second-largest city St. Petersburg.

"Of course, the police did everything possible to avoid any provocations on the part of the ultra-radicals," Peskov said.

PROTESTS TO CONTINUE

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a leader of the Other Russia movement which unites vocal Putin opponents from liberals to communists and organised the weekend rallies, pledged the fight against the "immoral regime" would continue.

"Of course, new 'marches of the discontented' will follow as a form of protest," Kasyanov said on Moscow's independent Ekho Moskvy radio station.

"The authorities themselves are provoking this stand-off," he said. "We witness the ultimate suppression of political freedom ... it looks like they are telling us, 'get down on your knees, cringe and do what we tell you to do'."

Ekho Moskvy said the FSB security service had launched "checks" of a Kasparov radio speech on April 8 in which he urged people to join the rallies, saying he could be accused of "a public call to extremism". Kasparov is a leader of Other Russia.

Putin is popular across Russia as the economy grows, propelled by high world prices for the nation's oil.

United Russia, the ruling party patronised by Putin, is set to perform well in parliamentary polls due in December. A candidate favoured by Putin is sure to win in a presidential vote next March when he steps down after eight years in power.

Kasyanov said Putin's popularity was a product of powerful state propaganda and domination of the media.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov)

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