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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hundreds Protest Apartment Fraud

ReutersPeople gathering in a tent camp near the White House on Friday evening.
Hundreds of people who lost their life savings and, in some cases, their homes in a nationwide real estate scam rallied outside the White House on Friday, and some set up tents in the hope of staying all weekend.

After two failed attempts to break up the gathering, helmeted riot police swooped down on the camp early Saturday, tearing down the tents and detaining about 50 people.

Large anti-government protests are rare under President Vladimir Putin, and Friday's gathering was the first to incorporate tents -- an enduring symbol of Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

On Friday afternoon, middle-aged and elderly protesters sat on the sun-splashed lawn across from the White House and in a dozen or so tents, holding banners and bickering over water, which was in short supply. Many chanted "Shame!" and "Down with corruption!"

The target of their anger was a residential construction firm called Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, which they said collected more than 15 billion rubles ($555.3 million) between 2003 and 2005 after they promised customers affordable, new housing. More than 50,000 families are believed to have paid for apartments that were never built or that were sold to multiple buyers.

The former head of Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, Nikolai Karasyov, was arrested and charged with large-scale fraud in January.

Police cordoned off the area on Friday, allowing people out but not in. An organizer, Sergei, said as many as 1,100 people were present at the beginning of the protest, but some had left to use toilets outside a nearby metro station and were not allowed to return. Sergei would not give his last name, saying police could charge him for organizing an unsanctioned protest.

The protesters distributed a list of demands, calling on the federal government to accept responsibility for the fraud and asking that it guarantee apartments or cash refunds. They also asked that any municipal officials who purposely or negligently allowed Sotsialnaya Initsiativa to perpetrate the fraud be prosecuted.

City Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko arrived at the protest in the afternoon and offered to mediate between the protesters and the federal government. He took three protesters into the White House but was not able to find a federal official willing to negotiate with them, protesters said.

Anastasia Antonycheva, a spokeswoman for the apartment buyers, said the protesters had not appealed to Mitrokhin or any other politician to mediate and that they wanted a response from higher-ranked officials.

Sergei said Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev had offered to meet with them on Monday but they wanted someone with more clout.

OMON riot police and regular police tried to disperse the crowd twice but could not get past a chain of screaming protesters, Antonycheva said. She said the officers backed off when protesters asked them for protection.

Late in the afternoon, police formed two lines around the area so that protesters could no longer talk to a crowd of some 150 supporters gathered outside the cordon, Antonycheva said by telephone.

As the ranks of riot police armed with truncheons grew, police warned the protesters to leave before midnight. But people wrapped in blankets sat on the ground near the tents, singing and shouting defiantly: "We've got nowhere to go," The Associated Press reported.

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Riot police detaining a protester near the White House late Friday night. They broke up the protest just after midnight.

Riot police forcibly cleared the camp just after midnight, dragging protesters to waiting buses. About 50 people were briefly detained and fined 400 to 500 rubles for participating in an unsanctioned rally, Itar-Tass reported, citing police. said its reporter was detained along with some 30 protesters and taken to Presnensky police station. All were released within two hours, it said.

Defrauded homeowners have held a series of protests and hunger strikes in Moscow and the Moscow region since last fall. Friday's protesters came from those two areas as well as Voronezh and Orenburg, Antonycheva said. Some protesters were victims of other apartment scams, she said.

Only two other large anti-government demonstrations have been held during Putin's six years in power. Earlier this year, drivers staged national protests over the conviction of a driver in the car-crash death of Altai's governor, and the fact that officials' cars with flashing blue lights are given a priority on the roads. The driver's conviction was later overturned. Early last year, unpopular reforms replacing state benefits with small cash payments sparked street protests across the country.

A makeshift tent camp in Kiev's main square played a major role in protests that eventually toppled the long-serving regime of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2004. The Kremlin has said a similar uprising would not take place in Russia.