Moscow — America's top diplomat has criticized Russia for the mass-arrest of almost 200 opposition politicians and activists over the weekend. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for "an end to the persecution of independent voices" in Russia following a police raid on a political forum in Moscow during which scores of people were detained.
Police rounded up the politicians, municipal deputies and journalists at a conference on municipal governance in Moscow on Saturday as authorities continue to tighten the screws on Kremlin critics ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
"Today, the Russian government detained almost 200 municipal leaders and politicians, including political activists Vladimir Kara-Murza and Yuliya Galyamina, on dubious grounds," Blinken said on Twitter, referring to prominent Russian opposition figures swept up in the raid. "We call for an end to the persecution of independent voices."
The Moscow branch of Russia's Interior Ministry said the event participants had been detained for violating coronavirus-related restrictions.
"Besides that members of an organization whose activities are considered undesirable on Russian territory were among the participants," police officials added.
All of the detainees were released later in the day, but they will face court hearings and likely fines in the days and weeks to come.
"In my experience, I've never seen a whole forum being held," said Kara-Murza, the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, in a telephone interview with CBS News on Monday. His arrest was captured on video tweeted over the by European Council on Foreign Relations co-chair Carl Bildt.
"It was a real special operation," he said, adding that the authorities' goal appeared to be not only to disrupt the event, but to intimidate people with arrests.
The forum was organized by the United Democrats project, which is not on Russian prosecutors' official list of "undesirable organizations." But law enforcement officials linked the event to the Open Russia movement of former oil tycoon and exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which has been designated an "undesirable" entity since 2017.
The forum, meant to last two days, was the first event organized for low-level opposition politicians from across Russia to discuss their plans ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and regional elections in the fall.
Both the Russian Parliament and regional governments across the country are dominated by pro-Putin politicians. The local city and municipal elections have been the only contests in recent years in which independent opposition candidates have still managed to run.
Saturday's police raid was the latest manifestation of a weeks-long crackdown on opposition figures and activists following the imprisonment of Putin's No. 1 critic, Alexey Navalny, who was jailed in January upon his return to Moscow from Berlin, where he spent months recovering from nerve agent poisoning.
Kara-Murza, who's survived two poisonings himself in recent years, said the weekend arrests sent a clear signal that "pluralism is not allowed anywhere now, even at the lowest level" of governance.
Meanwhile, Navalny's team confirmed on Monday that he had been moved to a penal colony in the Vladimir region — a prison camp notorious for its harsh conditions — to serve his two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Navalny's whereabouts had been unknown since Friday.
In an Instagram post shared by his team, Navalny called the penal colony "our friendly concentration camp," describing it as a place with endless rules and a lot of surveillance cameras, reminiscent of George Orwell's novel 1984.
He said that because he was classified as a flight risk, prison guards were checking on him every hour during the night.
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