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Protect Free Assembly In Russia

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Dozens of Russian riot police recently detained around 100 opposition activists in central Moscow at a rally to defend the right to free assembly. The peaceful demonstration drew several hundred people. Government critic Boris Nemtsov was among those rounded up, along with the heads of the Memorial rights organization, Oleg Orlov, and the Movement for Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev. A spokesman for the Solidarnost opposition movement said all the activists had been released and ordered to appear before a judge to answer charges of breaching rules on public gatherings.

The U.S. is concerned over the police break-up of the peaceful demonstration by Russian citizens. "The detention of at least 100 protestors, including prominent human rights defenders and opposition political leaders," the U.S. State Department said in a written statement, "together with reports of mistreatment against some of the demonstrators, constitutes another blow against freedom of speech and assembly, which are universal and fundamental rights that deserve to be protected and promoted."

The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to stop blocking peaceful demonstrations. "Russian law clearly grants the right to freedom of assembly," said Human Rights Watch's deputy bureau chief Tanya Lokshina in a statement.

The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, also expressed concern over the detention of Russian human rights advocates. He said, "I call on the Russian authorities to cease this heavy-handed treatment of peaceful demonstrators."

Activists have been holding regular, peaceful protests in the Russian capital. They are routinely denied authorization and dispersed by riot police. On December 31st, police detained 82-year-old Russian dissident Lyudmila Alexeyva -- founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group -- at one such rally.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, "Governments should be expected to resist the temptation to restrict freedom of expression when criticism arises, and to be vigilant in preventing the law from becoming an instrument of oppression.