Kremlin defends 'justified' police response to protests

Ola CICHOWLAS
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The West has condemned the actions of Russian police, who used batons on demonstrators

The Kremlin on Tuesday defended the police response to a wave of protests demanding free local elections in Moscow and downplayed the huge demonstrations.

"We believe the firm action of law enforcement to curb public unrest was absolutely justified," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, in the first Kremlin comment since the protests engulfed the capital.

"We do not agree with those who call what is happening a political crisis."

Since mid-July tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in central Moscow after the exclusion of several opposition figures from local polls next month.

"Law enforcement agencies are fulfilling their duties and do everything necessary to ensure security during sanctioned rallies," Peskov said.

Police detained hundreds after a major rally on Saturday and nearly 1,400 at a protest late last month. Some protesters were injured in the crackdown and footage of police violence sparked an outcry on social networks.

One young woman was punched in the stomach by an officer as she was dragged to the detention van Saturday. Her lawyer told AFP she was in hospital with a concussion.

The West has condemned the actions of Russian police, who used batons on demonstrators. AFP journalists at the scene saw protesters with injuries.

Peskov instead said that there had been instances of protesters using force against law enforcement during the demonstrations.

Following an unsanctioned protest on July 27, Russian investigators launched a probe into "mass unrest", a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is serving a 30-day jail term for calling on people to attend the demonstration.

- Largest protest since 2012 -

The protests are among the largest since 2011 and 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency after serving a term as prime minister.

But Peskov dismissed their significance, saying that protests take place in "many countries".

"They cannot be associated with some kind of crisis," he said.

Russia has accused foreign governments and media of backing the demonstrations, and its internet watchdog has sent an official warning to Google over airing protest videos on the YouTube platform.

Lawmakers will hold a special session next week to discuss alleged "meddling" by foreign powers.

Putin has not commented on the Moscow protests.

During a police crackdown on the July 27 demonstration, the Russian leader plunged to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a submersible, while last Saturday he was riding motorbikes in Crimea.

Peskov said Putin has "paid attention to what is happening" but has not commented because "every day in Russia a huge number of events take place."

Local polls are a rare opportunity for dissenting voices to participate in political life as anti-Kremlin parties have been squeezed out of parliament over Putin's two decades in power.

The protests come amid growing frustration over declining living standards and a fall in the 66-year-old's approval ratings.