Russian riot police have dispersed an Occupy-style protest against President Vladimir Putin, forcing dozens of people out of central Moscow park, where they had been camped for more than a week.
The action against the sit-in was the latest step in a government crackdown on protests over Putin’s return to the presidency on May 7 for a six-year term following four years as prime minister.
Police converged on the site at Chistiye Prudy Park early on Wednesday and told about 50 people who had spent the night there to leave, citing a court order issued on Tuesday requiring them to clear the area.
Police clashed with demonstrators, beating some on the head with batons in the worst violence since a wave of protests prompted by suspicions of fraud in a December parliamentary vote.
At least 15 protesters had been detained after the swoop, Reuters news agency reported.
«People were ready to gather their stuff and move, but they did not give us time, they just started pushing people out,» Alisa Obraztsova, a protester in her 20s, said.
Protesters said that police had told them they must leave by noon (08:00 GMT) on Wednesday, but Obraztsova said the police who cleared the park said it had to be cleaned by noon.
The small protest became the talking point of Russian politics while testing the ruling elite’s desire to put up with a form of dissent that still falls narrowly within the confines of increasingly strict legislation.
The rallies swelled to a few thousand as people finished work but shrank to just a few dozen activists overnight.
The sit-in referred to itself as Occupy Abay a reference to the looming bronze statue of 19th century Kazakh poet Abay Kunanbayuli around which the protesters gathered in a leafy boulevard in the upscale Chistye Prudy district.
And they got around rules requiring the city to mandate any form of protest by calling their action a mass public «stroll».
A Moscow court, responding to a complaint filed by three residents near the site, issued an order on Tuesday ordering police to «take measures to stop the mass event and the violations of civil order”.
Protest leaders have accused police of being behind the complaint.
«The morning dispersal was illegal and here is the proof,» Sergei Mitrokhin, liberal Yabloko party leader, wrote in a blog on the Moscow Echo radio station website next to a copy of his own letter to the court.
Riot police detained more than 400 people at a May 6 protest and hundreds more on inauguration day, when they cleared streets near the path of Putin’s convoy of peaceful protesters and bystanders, and grabbed people sitting at a pavement cafe.