Crowds gather in cities to protest against corruption in largest anti-government rallies for five years, with hundreds held

Hundreds of protesters have been detained by riot police in cities across Russia, as some of the most important anti-government protests in years swept the country.

The call to protest came from the opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was himself imprisoned at the Moscow demonstration. A monitoring group said at the least 850 people were detained in Moscow alone, while the news organization Tass dedicated a figure of 500.

Police to say something about 7,000 people attended the Moscow rally on Sunday, though the real number may well be much higher. The crowd surged down the length of the citys main boulevard, Tverskaya. A police helicopter flew overhead and thousands of riot police were on duty across the city centre.

The size and scope of the demoes pose a challenge to the Kremlin, a year before elections in which Vladimir Putin is expected to win another six-year term.

Soon after arriving, Navalny was bundled into a police bus, which was unable to drive away for several minutes as crowds set upon it and tried to free him. Protesters even pushed parked vehicles in front of the bus to stop it moving, but were later beaten away by riot police. There were isolated clashes with riot police and calls of disgrace and Russia will be free.

Shaun Walker (@ shaunwalker7)

More video from the clashes around the bus with arrested protest leader @navalny inside from an hour or so ago. pic.twitter.com/ k3lwh5nCJN

March 26, 2017

The protests were ostensibly a demand for answers to a video made by Navalny and his squad about corruption linked to the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The video, which alleges that Medvedev has amassed a collecting of luxury manors, yachts and vineyards, has been watched on YouTube more than 11 m days. There has been no official response to the allegations except to dismiss them out of hand.

The meets in Moscow and most other Russian cities were denied official permission by police on a variety of pretext. In Moscow, police moved to detain protesters who were shouting mottoes or holding placards, those who were acting aggressively, or often simply at random.

The Guardian reporter Alec Luhn was among those detained, grabbed by riot police while photographing police incarcerating others. Police searched him, confiscated his phone and set him in a police bus, where he was held for two hours before being driven to a police station on the outskirts of Moscow with 16 other detainees. He was told he would be charged with participating in an unsanctioned protest, despite repeatedly telling police he was a journalist and indicating Russian foreign ministry accreditation. He was released after more than five hours in detention, after the foreign ministry intervened.

Maxim Kryuchkov, 15, was also brought to the police station with Luhn. He said police knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the face, as he tried to hold on to a friend who was being detained. His nose looked violated and there was a cut on his neck.

Albert Komissarenko, an engineer who was passing the rally by chance, insured a man being punched by police. I was angry and screamed, dishonor, and then they detained me too. They grabbed me and punched me twice in the back and pushed me into the police bus, he said.

Komissarenko was of the view that after his experience, he would attend the next rally as a participant. He said: There was excessive, unfounded violence today. The regime is trying to intimidate everyone , not just those who fight against it.

Navalny posted on Twitter: Hi, everything is fine with me. Im at the police station and were talking about the[ Medvedev] movie with the police. Keep up your peaceful stroll, the weather is good. His press secretary later said he was being held in prison overnight and would face a court hearing on Monday. Employees of Navalnys Anti-Corruption Foundation is likewise detained at the organisations offices. Late in the evening, plain clothes men accompanied by police were filmed removing computers and other equipment from the offices.

Sundays protests were subjected to a blackout on state media, which acted as if they were not taking place. However, in a worrying sign for the Kremlin, even in dozens of smaller cities across the country several hundred people came to protest. In Vladivostok in the far east of the country, police imprisoned a number of protesters, while in Saint petersburg, several thousand gathered on Palace Square, simply a fortnight after the centenary of the revolution that deposed the last tsar in 1917.

Local agencies reported that around 130 people were detained. The radio station Ekho Moskvy estimated that around 60,000 Russians in 82 different towns came out to protest.

Protesters
Protesters in Moscow. Photo: Alexander Utkin/ AFP/ Getty

As Russians continue to feel the pressure of a three-year economic downturn, the rampant corruption in government is a sore point for many Russians, even though it is Putin himself retains high acceptance ratings.

Sundays protests were some of the most important anti-government demonstrations since a wave of protests in 2011 and 2012 that followed Putins decision to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister, and a fraud-tinged parliamentary election.

That protest wave culminated with a large rally on Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012, the day before Putins inauguration. The protests turned violent, police cracked down, and long trials of a number of protesters ended in prison terms.

Navalny has declared himself a candidate in next general elections due next March. Putin is expected to stand and win another six-year word, and sources close to the presidential administration say that after some deliberation, a decision have so far taken not to allow Navalny to take part.

Navalny has spent the past weeks travelling around the country, recruiting volunteers in the regions to help him operate his campaign. During the travels, he has had to be faced with supposed bomb menaces at venues, frequent demonstrations meant to interrupt his meets and even an assault in which green fluid was flung over his head.

Everywhere weve run there have been people trying to interrupt it or throw eggs at us, and zero coverage from local papers, but still people have come, Navalny told the Guardian last week. A photograph from his campaign stop in the town of Saratov on Friday showed several hundred people mobbed into the room to listen to Navalny.

They is felt that Putins support is merely based on a total lack of competition, and are doing everything they can to keep us quiet, said Navalny.

Read more: www.theguardian.com