MOSCOW -- Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and several hundred other anti-Kremlin activists were detained yesterday after hundreds of riot police sealed off Moscow's Pushkin Square and clubbed some protesters to prevent a banned opposition rally and march.
"They are seizing people everywhere, so that any group of people that looks even the least bit suspicious is immediately arrested -- not just blocked, but arrested, harshly," Kasparov said in a cellphone interview with the radio station Echo Moskvy after his arrest. He waved to supporters from a police van before he was driven off.
Police later broke up a demonstration outside the police station where he was being held. Protesters shouting, "Freedom for political prisoners!" were kicked and clubbed by police.
At the square earlier, lines of police, including undercover officers pointing out vocal demonstrators, quickly moved in on anyone who began to chant slogans or tried to galvanize people milling around the police cordon.
Some elderly women, carrying flowers and copies of the Russian Constitution, were knocked down or hauled away. A number of journalists were detained but officials said they were quickly released.
Kasparov is a leader of the Other Russia, an opposition coalition that had called on supporters to assemble in Pushkin Square despite a decision by city officials to ban any gathering by the group at that location.
"The authorities are afraid of us; they are nervous," said former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who broke with President Vladimir Putin and is a leader of the Other Russia and a potential presidential candidate. "Why can free people not walk? Why are they beaten?"
The coalition has held a series of what it calls "dissenters marches" in Russian cities in recent weeks. All have been suppressed, sometimes violently, by masses of riot police. Another was planned for St. Petersburg today.
Kasparov and his supporters say they plan to continue to step up their protests in the next 12 months in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections.
They charge that Putin has squeezed the life out of Russian democracy and plans to stage-manage the elections to prevent a free choice.
Local authorities stressed that they did provide a permit for the group to hold a demonstration at another location -- several hundred people gathered there, and Kasyanov addressed them.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said that by seeking to stage a march where it was not permitted, the Other Russia was looking for a confrontation with police.
"We have sanctioned a large number of events, both progovernment and propresidential, and also antigovernment ones," Luzhkov told journalists yesterday. "We live in a free and democratic country and allow the expression of both agreement and disagreement with the government.
"Processions are a problem to us," he continued. "We have not allowed propresidential organizations to hold them as well and suggested that they find a large place for a rally. We act similarly with anti-government organizations who want to express their protest to the authorities."
Officials said 9,000 police and Interior Ministry troops were deployed at different locations across the city.
The authorities appear unwilling to allow opposition gatherings except at locations where crowds can be contained easily by large numbers of police. At Pushkin Square yesterday, as arrests were taking place, about 150 members of a progovernment youth group rallied with official permission inside the police cordon.
Kasparov was freed after he was fined $38 for participating in the rally.