MOSCOW An international human rights group urged Russia on Tuesday to stop detaining peaceful protesters after police hauled away more than 100 people attending opposition rallies over the weekend.
More than 120 people were detained in three unsanctioned rallies in Moscow on Saturday and Sunday and New York-based Human Rights Watch said 10 pro-democracy activists had been held after a rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod east of Moscow last week.
"All these demonstrations were clearly peaceful," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The activists did nothing to provoke the police or necessitate police interference."
"Over and over again, the Russian police move in on peaceful protesters and drag them off," Williamson said. "The government needs to make clear that holding up a poster or standing peacefully in protest is no reason to throw people into detention."
A wave of protests began in December over allegations of fraud in an election that gave Putin's United Russia party a small parliamentary majority.
Putin's nearly 64 percent victory in a separate presidential election in March has taken some of the wind out of the protests, but they show no sign of stopping.
The government has defended the police action, saying officers have acted within their rights and without using undue force, but opposition leaders accuse the police of quickly resorting to excessive force.
City authorities have allowed a number opposition rallies, provided the time and place are agreed in advance.
But opposition leaders say it is hard to get official permission and protesters are often detained if they take part in unsanctioned demonstrations. Moscow authorities have repeatedly rejected opposition requests to hold demonstrations on central squares near the Kremlin.
More than 100 people were detained in Moscow on Sunday demonstrating against the Kremlin's grip on the media and a documentary that accused the opposition of paying people to attend rallies.
More than 20 were detained in the capital on Saturday after a protest against the arrest of an environmental campaigner and his lawyer and two were held after a rally soon afterwards.
"Human Rights Watch reiterates that according to the European Court of Human Rights, an unauthorized peaceful protest does not justify an infringement on freedom of assembly, but requires a certain degree of tolerance on the part of the authorities," the group said in its statement.
"The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations of those obligations."
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)