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Moscow - Russian police raided opposition leaders' homes on Monday and summoned them for questioning, disrupting plans for a protest against President Vladimir Putin and suggesting he has lost patience with unrest.
The early morning searches ahead of Tuesday's rally were an aggressive turn after months of opposition demonstrations, signalling a tougher approach to dissent at the start of the former KGB spy's new six-year term as president.
Several leaders were ordered to appear for questioning on Tuesday about violence at a rally on the eve of Putin's May 7 inauguration, almost certainly stopping them from attending the first big planned protest since he returned to the Kremlin.
Armed police stood guard as investigators searched the apartments of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, socialite Ksenia Sobchak and other opposition figures, rifling through rooms and seizing computer drives and discs, photographs and cash.
“They practically cut out the door,” Navalny, one organiser of a wave of protests sparked by allegations of fraud in a December parliamentary election won by Putin's United Russia party, said on Twitter. He tweeted that police had confiscated electronics “including discs with the children's photos”.
After tolerating the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule while seeking election, Putin now looks intent on damping down unrest.
On Friday, he signed a law that increased fines, in some cases more than 100-fold, for violations of public order at gatherings including street demonstrations, ignoring warnings from his human rights council that it was unconstitutional.
The Investigative Committee, Russia's main investigation agency, said officers had seized “a large quantity of propaganda material and literature with anti-state slogans, electronic databases and computers containing information relevant to the criminal case” opened over violence at the May 6 protest.
Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and Sobchak, a TV presenter, socialite and restaurateur who has become a critic of Putin despite her late father's close ties to the president before he rose to power, were among those targeted for searches.
“People barged in at 8am, gave me no chance to get dressed, robbed the apartment, humiliated me,” she tweeted. “I never thought we would return to such repression in this country.”
“Vova is crazy,” one Twitter user wrote, referring to Putin by the common nickname for Vladimir. Others messaged under the tag that translates as “hello1937” - a reference to the deadliest year of dictator Josef Stalin's repression.
“What we are witnessing today is in essence the year 1937,” opposition activist Yevgenia Chirikova said at an emergency meeting in a cramped office to discuss the protest on Tuesday.
Two armed police guarded the entrance to Navalny's modest, Soviet-built apartment building, allowing in only residents.
Navalny's lawyer was barred from his flat for hours, Ekho Moskvy radio said. His spokesperson Anna Veduta said armed police also went to an office Navalny uses.
“This is the rape of the Russian constitution,” she said.
She said one item authorities confiscated was a T-shirt with the phrase “crooks and thieves” - Navalny's mocking nickname for United Russia, the party Putin has used as a lever of power.
“They rifled through everything, every wardrobe, in the toilet, in the refrigerator. They searched under the beds,” Udaltsov told reporters of the search at his home.
Maria Baronova, aide to an opposition lawmaker, said her flat was searched while she was out with her five-year-old daughter. Investigators took four computers, protest signs, posters, a sonogram from her pregnancy and a pin referring to LGBT - the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
She told Reuters she had not signed the summons and communicated with the investigators only by phone. “I told them, 'You have robbed my home, isn't it enough?’”
Opposition politician Sergei Mitrokhin said the raids were a sign Putin was relying on oppressive measures to rein in dissent rather than conducting political reforms. “Putin has stopped even imitating democracy,” he said on Ekho Moskvy.
Investigative Committee spokesperson Vladimir Markin said those whose homes were searched had been summoned for “investigative action” on Tuesday. Most or all were ordered to appear at 11am, one hour before the scheduled start of the demonstration.
Opposition leaders have permission for a march and rally in Moscow, a test of their ability to maintain pressure on Putin.
The new law raises fines for violations at public gatherings to as much as 300 000 roubles ($9 200) for participants and a million roubles ($30 000) for organising groups.
Udaltsov said the law and raids would fail in their aim of frightening people and making them “sit quietly at home”.
“I think even more people will come than had initially planned to,” he told reporters, adding that Putin and United Russia “are digging themselves a pit - deeper and deeper”.
In power since 2000, Putin won a six-year presidential term in March despite protests which had drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets several times since December.
Police largely left those protests alone but began to crack down after Putin's election, beating protesters at the rally on May 6 and briefly detaining hundreds in subsequent weeks.
They have detained 12 people over violence at the May 6 protest on charges punishable by more than a year in jail. - Reuters