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Thousands Join Protests Against Welfare Reform

Protests against the federal government ending in-kind benefits for pensioners continued at the weekend in St. Petersburg, but this time with the approval of City Hall, unlike those two weeks ago when unauthorized protests led to clashes with police.

"From 4,000 to 6,000 people participated in the rally this weekend," said Mikhail Obozov, head of Walking Without Putin, a new student group that took part. "We plan to continue protests in mid-February, this time with students [whose are also losing benefits]."

The rally on Saturday resulted in a minor incident in which a Channel 5 journalist was beaten up by protesters, Fontanka.ru reported. Reporter Kirill Peshchalnikov lost a tooth after he was attacked by protesters while walking around the crowd during a break in a broadcast.

Hundreds of protesters assembled by Yabloko, Communists and National Bolsheviks appeared Saturday in different parts of St. Petersburg holding posters slamming the Kremlin-loyal United Russia faction and displaying portraits of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is in a Moscow jail on allegedly politically motivated charges.

On Monday, a city court dropped all charges against Vladimir Soloveichik, co-head of local movement Citizens' Initiative, who had been accused by the police of initiating disorder last month, specifically by organizing pensioners to block Suvorovsky Prospekt.

"It is quite revealing that the government tried to find a scapegoat," Obozov said Monday. "Last time the police arrested an old lady and than beat her up because she defended young people who participated in the meeting. The charges against Solovechik were part of such actions."

Eight members of left-wing parties including Soloveichik were detained in St. Petersburg and its suburb of Gatchina on Jan. 18 after participating in city pensioners' protests against the axing of the entitlements. The activists were detained after crowds of people blocked major city streets, including Nevsky, Moskovsky and Suvorovsky prospekts. Suvorovsky Prospekt leads to City Hall, where protesters clashed with the police.

"The case was obviously falsified," Soloveichik said in a telephone interview. "Representatives of the 18th police department, which fights organized crime and which initiated the case originally, did not even show up in the court room because would not be able to say anything if they swore to tell the truth."

"This shows that protesters cannot be prosecuted legally, so all that is left for the authorities is to falsify such cases," he said.

Soloveichik's wife Tatyana was beaten up and robbed Thursday night, her husband said, suggesting the assault could have linked to his activities.

He said he had received constant threats from the police over the years of his activity as a leader of Citizens' Initiative.

"My wife was on her way from work when she noticed a man about 1.8 meters tall following her," he said. "He was following her for quite a while and then attacked her by hitting in her chest, grabbed her bag with her money and documents in it and run away."

She lost 6,500 rubles ($232) in cash and documents necessary to get financial assistance for their child, Soloveichik said.

"The man had an athletic build, which makes me guess that he might linked to some special services," he said. "This doesn't look as if it happened by chance just a few days before the court hearing was scheduled on Monday," he said.

"I have been threatened constantly by the police while organizing rallies, by Andrei Chenopyatov, [head of Police Department No. 18] in particular," Soloveichik said.

Chernopyatov denied Soloveichik's allegation.

"There were no threats made," Chernopyatov said in a telephone interview Friday. "There will be no comments."

Soloveichik's wife filed a report about the assault to police department No. 61 shortly after she was attacked, her husband said.

Feb, 1, 2005   By Vladimir Kovalev
The St. Petersburg Times


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