MOSCOW Russian police detained a prominent opposition figure and several other people holding unauthorised protests in Moscow and St Petersburg on Monday to defend the right to assembly.
Police grabbed Eduard Limonov, a leader of the Other Russia opposition movement, as he spoke to journalists shortly after arriving with a few dozen activists in Moscow's Triumph Square.
Under a brisk snowfall, demonstrators chanted "Russia without Putin!" and slogans calling for the right to free assembly, as Muscovites shopped for the New Year holiday in the capital's main street nearby.
Witnesses saw several other people detained by the heavy contingent of riot police and regular officers. Opposition activists said at least 28 people were detained. Police could not immediately be reached for comment.
About 10 protesters were detained on the main thoroughfare in St Petersburg, Nevsky Prospekt, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.
For several years, a movement called Strategy 31 has called protests on the last day of every month that has 31 days to draw attention to what opponents of President Vladimir Putin say is Kremlin suppression of the right to free assembly.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in Article 31 of Russia's constitution, but activists say the government restricts that right by requiring organisers to get official permission, which is frequently denied.
A law passed in 2012 increased fines for organisers and protesters deemed to have violated the rules, part of what Putin's critics say is a crackdown on dissent accompanying his return to the presidency for a six-year term in May.
The Strategy 31 protests are separate from the opposition protests that followed Putin's party's win in December 2011 parliamentary elections which critics said was marred by fraud and which brought tens of thousands of people into the streets.
Putin called for unity in a traditional New Year address, televised across Russia just before midnight, saying it was needed if Russia is to be strong and successful, but made no mention of his political opponents.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov, Valery Stepchenkov and Igor Belyatsky; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)