A protest rally in Moscow

© AFP / Yuri Kadobnov
A protest rally in Moscow. August 10, 2019.

A Russian senator and a former riot police commander said officers acted unprofessionally and used “excessive force” against protesters at unsanctioned rallies in Moscow.

Thousands of people have participated in several protests in Moscow in recent weeks, rallying against what they believe is the unfair treatment of several opposition candidates, which were barred from running in the upcoming city council election. Some of the demonstrations were unsanctioned and led to scuffles with police, and subsequent arrests.

More than 1,000 people were detained at an unsanctioned protest on July 27. Senator Vyacheslav Markhayev called this development “scary.” A police veteran and a member of the Communist Party, he had led an anti-riot unit in the past in the eastern Buryatia region. He also served several tours in Chechnya during an armed conflict there.

Markhayev did not mince his words in criticizing police, whose actions to disperse the rallies prompted allegations of police brutality. Instead of “dialogue” with protesters, the city’s authorities “chose to use force, which in many cases was excessive,” he said.

“As a former special police unit commander, I believe the actions of the forces tasked with upholding the public order [in Moscow] were unlawful and professionally incompetent.”

There were reports of violence from both sides, as sporadic skirmishes broke out during the demonstrations. Some protesters were accused of throwing stones, bottles, and trash bins at the officers, as well as resisting arrest. The activists, meanwhile, say police injured people with batons and acted unnecessarily rough when pinning unarmed protesters to the ground.

Particular attention has been drawn to the case of Darya Sosnovskaya, a young woman who filed a police brutality report after being detained. An officer was filmed apparently punching her in the stomach as she was being dragged across the street to a police van. The video has since gone viral and sparked an outcry and calls to identify the officer in question.

On Monday, Moscow police had launched an internal investigation into the incident.

Comment: More details on Sosnovskaya’s case were reported:

[…] Tatyana Molokanova, a lawyer for Daria Sosnovskaya, told Current Time television on August 13 that her client was hospitalized after complaining of headaches and bruises on the top of her head that she suffered while being arrested at the protest on August 10.

Russian civil rights lawyer Pavel Chikov of the legal-aid group Agora added that Sosnovskaya has been diagnosed with a concussion.

“This diagnosis was made by doctors at Moscow Hospital 67, where she was informed late on August 12,” he said. Rallies held each of the past four Saturdays to demand that officials allow independent candidates on the ballot in the upcoming municipal vote have resulted in thousands of arrests and condemnation of the heavy-handed tactics police are using against mostly peaceful protesters.

The police crackdown has been called one of the harshest in recent years against an opposition that has grown more defiant while denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power.

In the Kremlin’s first comments on the crackdown, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on August 13 called the police response “justified” and downplayed the significance of the protests.

[…]

At one point in the video footage, the woman appears to try to kick a police baton lying on the street as one of the officers is trying to pick it up.

The uniformed officer staggers the woman with a punch to her stomach and grabs the baton from the ground before shoving her into the police van seconds later.

The video has added to growing outrage at home and abroad over a decision by officials to block opposition candidates from running in elections for Moscow’s city council.

Russia’s Interior Ministry said on August 12 that it was setting up an investigation of the incident.

Local media have quoted the National Guard as saying that the officer who punched Sosnovskaya is not a member of the Russian National Guard’s units.

It is not clear which law enforcement unit the officers belong to.

Russian officers are rarely disciplined for using excessive and disproportionate force against demonstrators.

On August 11, Chikov offered a reward of 100,000 rubles (about $1,500) for help identifying the officer who punched Sosnovskaya.

Commenting on the whole of the demonstrations, the Kremlin had this to say:

Protests happen all over the world, so it’s wrong to call the recent demonstrations in Moscow a ‘political crisis’, the Kremlin’s spokesperson said. He insisted that police were right to intervene, preventing riots in the city.

Several protests involving thousands of people have been staged in the Russian capital in recent weeks, demanding that a group of disqualified opposition candidates be allowed to run in the city council election in early September. Some of the rallies were unsanctioned and broken up by riot police.

“We disagree with calling these developments a political crisis,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday, adding that anti-government rallies are common in many countries, including European states.

“It’s not a crisis. We see protests going on all over the world,” he said.

Putin did not publicly comment on the protests, but Peskov said the president is well aware of the situation and does not view it as something out of the ordinary. Putin receives reports on the matter, as he does with many other issues in Russia, his spokesperson stated.

Peskov pointed out the difference between the peaceful sanctioned protests and the times when protesters break the law. The official said the police are duty-bound to intervene, preventing attempts to “instigate riots.”

“The rough actions by law enforcement are absolutely justified” under such circumstances, Peskov said. Several protesters were detained and charged with fighting police and throwing bottles at them.

At the same time, the breaking up of the unsanctioned protests also prompted allegations of police brutality. In one case, a man’s leg was broken while he was being detained. In a separate incident, an officer punched a young woman in the stomach. She filed a report afterwards, and Moscow police launched an internal probe of the incident.

Dmitry Peskov said that applying excessive force against the protesters is “completely unacceptable,” and all such allegations must be “duly investigated and then brought to court.”