Putin's spokesman defends arrests of protesters

JIM HEINTZ Associated Press Published:

MOSCOW (AP) -- Vladimir Putin's spokesman is defending Russian's authorities' arrest of hundreds of demonstrators protesting the election returning Putin to the Kremlin, saying police were professional and effective in their approach.

Police on Monday night forcefully arrested protesters who remained on downtown Moscow's Pushkin Square after an officially approved rally finished. Those arrested included some main figures from anti-Putin protests that arose late last year.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday told the state news agency RIA Novosti that "the opposition action occurred in two parts -- the legal and the illegal. And in both the legal and illegal parts police showed a high level of professionalism, legitimacy and effectiveness."

The statement indicates that authorities intend to continue to crack down on protests outside of specifically authorized gatherings.

Moscow police spokesman Gennady Bogachev said Tuesday that the approximately 250 people arrested Monday had been released. Most of them face civil charges that carry a maximum penalty of 2000 rubles ($65).

Putin won the Sunday election with more than 63 percent of the vote, according to official figures, but the opposition and independent observers say there was widespread fraud including so-called "carousel voting" in which busloads of people are driven around to cast multiple ballots.

In the months leading up to the election, opposition leaders were elated not only by the large crowds their protests attracted -- some in Moscow as big as 100,000 -- but by the unusual official tolerance from officials who previously rejected almost all permission requests for opposition rallies.

But with Putin to be inaugurated in May for a six-year term, it is unclear if the opposition will be able to maintain its momentum and whether authorities will continue to allow large protests.

Opposition leaders were to meet later Tuesday with Moscow city authorities on a request to hold a large rally on Saturday.