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Russian police detain Western journalists at protest by soldiers’ wives

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Russian law enforcement on Saturday detained journalists at a protest rally in Moscow in what appears to be a warning ahead of presidential elections next month.

The protesting group of female relatives of Russian soldiers, widely known as the “wives of the mobilized,” has become increasingly vocal in past months. They initially mainly demanded that their husbands and sons be returned from the front in Ukraine, but some of the women have now begun openly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine in general.

The police didn’t detain any of the women protesters at Saturday demonstration, but moved against more than 20 men, most of whom appeared to be journalists, according to the monitoring site Mediazona. Among them were two Dutch citizens, as well as Russian citizens working for Russian and Western media, including AFP and Der Spiegel.

Upon his release, one of the detained journalists said he and others had been held in a police van for some three hours after which they were brought to a police station, questioned and issued with an official “warning” for having participated in an “unsanctioned protest,” before eventually being released. 

Notably, no women were detained.

“It was clear they [the police] went after specific people, all men and mostly journalists,” one witness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, told POLITICO in a phone conversation. “Probably to discourage journalists from covering such events in the future.”

Russian state media has ignored the soldiers’ wives protest group.

In comments to the Dutch news agency ANP, Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot described the detention of two Dutch journalists as “very concerning,” and said there would be a reaction. She gave no further details.

“You should be able to do your job as a journalist without the risk of landing in jail,” she was quoted as saying.

The Saturday gathering near Red Square was not the first time that the women have taken their protest to the walls of the Kremlin. But Russian law enforcement has largely remained on the sidelines.

Several weeks ago, one of the group’s leaders, Maria Andreyeva, was forcibly taken aside by police at a similar rally before being released. Andreyeva told a journalist it was proof that there was an order from above not to touch the women. 

“I hereby call upon all the wives of those who have been mobilized to come out to protest,” she said. “It is necessary for our authorities to understand that we are prepared to take desperate measures.”

It is widely thought Putin is trying to avoid announcing a second large-scale mobilization wave ahead of a presidential vote in March, of which the results are a foregone conclusion.

The police action on Saturday came several days after a Russian court extended the pre-trial detention of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested last March on espionage charges. 

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