Protesters Push on With Hunger Strike

MTMaria Vlakhantony, 65, of Voronezh, taking part Sunday in the week-old hunger strike at an unfinished building on the Garden Ring. As some demonstrators have been forced to abandon the cause for health reasons, others have stepped in to force the federal
Fifty homebuyers cheated out of their homes by a fraudulent construction firm pledged Sunday to push on with a hunger strike begun early last week until the government comes to the rescue.

The homebuyers have been camping out in an unfinished Garden Ring building since last Monday.

In the past week, three people have been hospitalized; four more have abandoned the protest on the advice of doctors.

A scoreboard in the second-floor hall of the unfinished women's center, near the corner of Tsvetnoi Bulvar and the Garden Ring, keeps track of how many protesters have been forced to leave.

Sergei Korolyov, a spokesman for apartment buyers defrauded by Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, said new protesters had helped replenish the thinning ranks of demonstrators. More than 50,000 families nationwide are believed to have paid the firm for homes that were never built or sold to multiple buyers.

Nikolai Karasyov, former head of Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, was arrested and charged with massive fraud in January. Scores of protests have broken out in Moscow and the surrounding region since summer 2005, when news of the fraud surfaced.

Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and Public Chamber member, and United Russia State Duma Deputies Alexander Khinshtein and Valery Ryazansky stopped by the demonstration, protesters said.

Khinshtein and Ryazansky were said to have promised that, by Wednesday, United Russia Duma deputies would draft a formal request that the federal government take over all unfinished Sotsialnaya Initsiativa buildings.

There are hopes that ombudsman Vladimir Lukin may also visit, protesters said.

Also on Sunday, a procession of about 200 cars with red ribbons tied to their antennae turned up at the building to signal their support for demonstrators, Korolyov said.

The cars, many driven by other fraud victims, left from Vorobyovy Gory at 11 a.m.

Some of the drivers were stopped by traffic police and charged a 50-ruble fine, Korolyov said. He added that another 200 or so people rallied in front of the building.

By early evening Sunday, the fence around the building and nearby shrubs were decorated with red ribbons. Traffic police had been posted in front of the building, frequently stopping vehicles.

Protesters said supportive crowds of up to 200 had been swarming around the front of the building every day of the hunger strike.

Albina Popello, an obstetrician and fraud victim from the northern Moscow suburb of Mytishchi, monitored protesters' health, taking their blood pressure and distributing medication to those with stomach pains.

Most of the protesters were weak and suffering from elevated blood pressure, Popello said.

As she sat on her mat Sunday afternoon, Galina Terenok, 68, cried. Popello comforted her. Terenok has already been hospitalized once but returned to continue the hunger strike.

Other protesters, many of them women in their fifties and sixties, shared stories of having invested in Sotsialnaya Initsiativa apartments after local authorities endorsed them. Many blame local officials as much as the construction firm for their woes.

Protesters kept blankets, mats, two space heaters and a television in the room where they were staying. They said they also had portable toilets and running water for washing their hands and faces.

The unfinished women's center had been paid for by a group of small- and medium-sized businesses that had planned to move into a separate, also unfinished office building next door. Both buildings were supposed to be constructed by Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, but the firm ran out of cash last year, said Tatyana Tikhonova, the business group's spokeswoman.

For now, the group's ownership of both sites remains in dispute.