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Kasparov seized at Moscow protest, released

Story Highlights

• NEW: Chess champion freed after brief detention at protest
• NEW: Kasparov's mother calls legal hearing "a shame"
• Protesters demonstrate against loss of rights under Putin
• Reports of those detained range from 170 to 600
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Russian riot police beat and detained protesters as thousands defied an official ban and attempted to stage a rally Saturday against President Vladimir Putin's government, which opponents accuse of rolling back freedoms.

Authorities also have banned a similar march planned for Sunday in St. Petersburg.

A coalition of opposition groups organized the "Dissenters March" to protest the economic and social policies of Putin as well as a series of Kremlin actions that critics say has stripped Russians of many political rights.

Organizers said about 2,000 demonstrators turned out. (Watch Russian police drag protesters away Video)

Thousands of police officers massed to keep the demonstrators off landmark Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow, beating some and detaining many others, including Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who has emerged as the most prominent leader of the opposition alliance.

Police said 170 people had been detained, but a Kasparov aide, Marina Litvinovich, said as many as 600 were -- although about half were released quickly.

Kasparov, who witnesses said was seized as he tried to lead a small group of demonstrators through lines of police ringing the square, was freed late Saturday after he was fined $38 for participating in the rally.

"It is no longer a country ... where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law," Kasparov said outside the court building, appearing unfazed by his detention.

"We now stand somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe," he said.

Klara Kasparova, Kasparov's mother, told CNN her son was resting in her apartment after his hearing.

She said a witness for the state presented "obvious factual errors" and the judge refused to hear any motions from the defense.

"There were many witnesses who knew better," Kasparova told CNN. "That was not a trial; it was a shame."

It was the fourth time in recent months that anti-Putin demonstrations have been broken up with force or smothered by a huge police presence.

Putin, whose second and last term ends in 2008, has created an obedient parliament and his government has reasserted control over major television networks, giving little air time to critics.

TV newscasts on Saturday reported the protests, but gave as much or more time to a pro-Kremlin youth rally held near Moscow State University.

Organizers had sought permission to gather on Pushkin Square, a traditional site for protests, but city officials rejected the request. Instead, they approved Turgenev Square, about a mile east and away from the city's commercial and cultural hub.

Organizers refused to cancel plans for the Pushkin Square rally and protesters started to arrive before 11 a.m. Police began seizing them a few at a time.

Viktor Vinokourov, a 67-year-old pensioner, watched the detentions from a nearby sidewalk, holding a hand-scrawled sign declaring: "I Don't Agree." A young man in a leather coat, apparently a plainclothes security officer, snatched it out of his hands.

Around noon, several hundred protesters headed away from Pushkin Square toward the sanctioned demonstration site, marching past startled motorists while chanting "Putin get out!" and "We need a new Russia!"

As they walked arm-in-arm down a main thoroughfare, a police cordon blocked their path. Some in the crowd ran forward and police charged, their truncheons flailing.

Hundreds of police and soldiers surrounded Turgenev Square but let demonstrators in after checking them for weapons.

Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's first prime minister but now a leading opponent, denounced the arrests and beatings in a speech at Turgenev Square.

"Everyone should ask the question: What is happening with our authorities -- are they still sane, or have they gone mad?" he said, as the crowd chanted, "Shame on the government."

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who observed the march, said authorities were only trying to maintain order, not to interfere with the exercising of political rights.

"We live in a democratic country, a free country, and we give the possibility to everybody to express their agreement or disagreement," he said on Russia's Channel 1 television.

CNN's Matthew Chance and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report


vert.kasparov.jpg

Chess superstar Garry Kasparov, in a December 2006 photo, was fined and freed Saturday after attempting to lead a banned march in Moscow.

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