Hundreds rally in Moscow to protest attacks

About 500 people came out on a rainy Sunday afternoon to protest the beatings of journalists and activists linked to a dispute over a forest just outside the Russian capital.

The protesters on the square in central Moscow held photographs of reporter Oleg Kashin and environmental activist Konstantin Fetisov, who were savagely beaten in separate attacks this month.

Fetisov was among those trying to save the Khimki forest from being cleared for highway construction, while Kashin reported on the controversy. Both remain hospitalized with head injuries. Kashin also had his jaw smashed, a leg broken and his fingers mangled.

Yevgeniya Chirikova, who heads up the Khimki campaign, told the crowd on Sunday: "With our action today we want to say: hands off civil activists, hands off journalists, hands off the people who honestly express their views."

The bludgeoning of Kashin by two unknown men, which was caught on a security camera and shown on national television, has led to public outrage and demands that the attackers be found and punished.

At the same time, the success of the Khimki campaign in grabbing national attention has helped galvanize similar environmental protest movements around the country.

"Civil activism is on the rise," prominent rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said at the protest rally. "Society is comprised of two groups of the population: 15 percent who are politically active and all the rest who are the morass, to use a figure of speech. These 15 percent are becoming more active, holding separate actions and, increasingly, joint actions."

Several of Russia's disparate opposition groups took part in Sunday's rally, united in common cause by the attacks.

The movement to save the Khimki forest was first driven by Mikhail Beketov, the founder and editor of a local paper, who wrote about suspicions that officials were set to personally profit from the highway construction.

He was assaulted in 2008, beaten so badly that he was left with brain damage and unable to speak. As with most attacks on journalists and rights activists in Russia, the perpetrators have not been found.

The Kremlin has tried to show that this may be changing. President Dmitry Medvedev has demanded that Kashin's attackers be tracked down, and prosecutors have reopened an investigation into the attack on Beketov.