MOSCOW (AFP) – The head of a top Russian rights group and the leader of an opposition party said Saturday they had been assaulted by riot police during a night-time raid on the non-profit group in the latest crackdown on activists during Vladimir Putin's new term.
In a raid that started Friday afternoon and lasted into the early hours of Saturday, dozens of men swept the offices of rights group For Human Rights and assaulted some 10 people including the group's head Lev Ponomaryov and leader of the Yabloko opposition party Sergei Mitrokhin.
Mitrokhin, who plans to run against incumbent pro-Kremlin Moscow mayor in polls this fall, showed up at the central Moscow offices in support of the embattled group who had been told to vacate the premises in a dispute with the city authorities over rent.
The liberal politician suggested the representatives of Russian special services were coordinating the raid and accused the Kremlin of being behind the attack.
"I believe it was an order from the very top," he told AFP. "The Moscow mayor's office was just implementing the order. They acted with deliberate violence."
Over the past months Russian authorities have raided hundreds of non-profit groups including For Human Rights as part of a major crackdown prompted by a controversial new law requiring NGOs that receive international donations to register as "foreign agents."
Ponomaryov and Mitrokhin said that when they refused to leave the office, the police and security guards stormed the premises, changed the locks on the doors, assaulted them and threw them out on the street in the middle of the night.
"They kicked me, dragged me across the floor and then threw me out onto the street," Ponomaryov, 71, told AFP.
"They kicked me in the kidney," he said. "They dragged me headfirst down the stairs," he said, adding he had returned home at 6 am after receiving first aid for multiple bruises.
Ponomoryov said he had had a long-running dispute with the Mayor's office which claims the group has not paid for its central Moscow offices and has to vacate them.
Mitrokhin also received injuries when he was kicked down the stairs. "His pant leg was stained in blood from the knee down," his aide Sophya Rusova said, adding he also had to receive treatment for his injuries.
Mitrokhin suggested that several men raiding the offices were representatives of the FSB special services who he said coordinated the attack.
"They were without identification documents," he told AFP. "I took pictures of them making them very angry," he said, noting his i-Pad had been confiscated.
"Today in front of the For Human Rights Offices Putin made it perfectly clear that it will be like in Nazi Germany," Mitrokhin said on Twitter.
The raid came as President Vladimir Putin sought to allay foreign investors' concerns about the arbitrariness of the rule of law in Russia during an international economic forum in Saint Petersburg.
Kremlin's rights envoy Vladimir Lukin accused the police of violating law during the dispute, saying he had to wait outside the offices for around 30 minutes before he was let in.
"Disputes of such nature should be solved in court," he said in televised remarks.
A spokeswoman for Moscow city police, Svetlana Kokotova, said the riot police had not assaulted anyone and participated in the dispute so as not to "allow panic and chaos."
An official at the Moscow city hall said she was unaware if the authorities had a court order to evict the tenants.
"We simply evicted them because the Moscow government is not in the mood to have anyone freeload on its property," she told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.