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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2,000 Protest the War in Chechnya

MTThousands of people attending a rally in the rain Saturday to call for peace in Chechnya and express their opposition to other policies pursued by Putin's administration.
At least 2,000 people gathered on Pushkin Square on Saturday to call for an end to the war in Chechnya. It was one of the largest antiwar protests in years and also provided a rare public platform for broader criticism of President Vladimir Putin's rule.

Protesters listened to speeches from prominent antiwar figures and chanted slogans like "Peace in Chechnya!" and "Down With Putin's Politics!"

They held "No to War" balloons and signs that said "Putin Is Killing Our Freedom," but they also held posters of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and photographs of people who died in the storming of the Dubrovka theater in 2002.

Saturday's protest acquired an extra sharpness because it fell on the second anniversary of the beginning of the Dubrovka hostage crisis.

The protest, which began under gray skies at 4 p.m. and lasted for about two hours, was organized by For Human Rights and the Committee for Antiwar Activities and supported by the Committee 2008.

Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, focused attention on Putin's plans to scrap elections for regional governors and abolish single-mandate seats in the State Duma.

"If the authorities don't hear us, if the State Duma votes for legislation that we consider a constitutional coup, then we'll gather again," he said on Ekho Moskvy on Saturday.

There was some debate about how many protesters showed up. Ponomaryov said there were 2,500 to 3,000. City police, who had 200 officers on hand, counted about 2,000 protesters, Interfax reported, citing city official Sergei Vasyukov.

But in any case the number of participants was well higher than anticipated, Vasyukov told Interfax, noting that organizers had predicted around 500 people would show up when applying for permission to hold the rally. Vasyukov complained that this made providing security difficult.

Speakers included prominent human rights activist Valeria Novodvorskaya, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, State Duma Deputy Oleg Shein of Rodina and Vladimir Kara-Murza of Committee 2008.

Politkovskaya, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta who negotiated with the hostage-takers during the Dubrovka crisis, addressed the crowd from the podium and above a sign that read, "Five Years of Putin, Five Years of War and Terror, Enough Already!"

"Someone has to stop shooting first in this war," Politkovskaya said. "The residents of our country should demand this of the Russian authorities. Only in this way can we create peace in Russia."

The protest also drew participants angry at the increased role of the security services under Putin and the proliferation of criminal cases they see as politically motivated.

Several participants brandished signs reading, "Free Russian Political Prisoners," with a list that included Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, Alexei Pichugin, Mikhail Trepashkin and Igor Sutyagin.

Yukos billionaires Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are facing charges of tax evasion and fraud in a case seen as retribution for Khodorkovsky's political ambitions. Pichugin, a former Yukos security chief, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to charges of organizing a 2002 double murder linked to the besieged oil major.

Igor Tabakov / MT

A protester holding a sign: "Putin Is Killing Our Freedom."

In May, Trepashkin was sentenced to four years in prison in a case that he and human rights advocates said was retribution for his investigation into allegations linking the Federal Security Service to the 1999 apartment bombings.

A Moscow City Court jury found Sutyagin, an arms control researcher at the USA and Canada Institute, guilty of treason in April for selling information on nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British company that the FSB claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin maintained that he drew his information from publicly available sources such as news reports, and that he had no reason to believe that the British company was linked to U.S. intelligence.

Interfax reported Saturday that central district authorities were dismayed that some participants and speakers -- citing specifically Novodvorskaya -- strayed from the antiwar message and encouraged general anti-government sentiment. Novodvorskaya wore a sign around her neck that read "Putin Is Not Yeltsin's Successor, But Rather Andropov's," referring to former KGB chief and Soviet leader Yury Andropov.