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EU lawmakers criticize Russian handling of rally

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MOSCOW — Four European Union lawmakers joined a banned opposition rally in central Moscow on Tuesday and criticized Russian police for violently detaining an opposition leader and dozens of other protesters.

Heidi Hautala, who heads the EU parliament's subcommittee on human rights, called the detention of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov at the rally "a violation" of his rights. Nemtsov is now an opposition leader.

Baton-wielding police officers also violently pushed around her colleague, Dutch lawmaker Thijs Berman.

"This is an amazing way of dealing with democracy, shocking," Berman told The Associated Press.

Dozens of police officers heavily cordoned off the square where the rally was held and hauled away protesters as they chanted "Down with the police state!" and "Russia without Putin!"

Moscow police told the Interfax news agency that more than 60 people were detained. Police also detained some 70 protesters at a similar rally in St. Petersburg.

Opposition groups have been calling rallies on the 31st day of each month to honor the 31st article of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right of assembly. Most of the rallies have been banned or dispersed by police as unsanctioned.

On Monday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russian police would keep breaking up opposition protests unless the dissidents obtain official permission to rally — permission they are routinely denied.

"You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it," Putin declared.

The EU lawmakers were visiting Russia to attend a Sept. 1 commemoration ceremony for the 2004 hostage-taking raid on a school in Beslan in which 334 people died — more than half of them children.

Associated Press Writer Irina Titova contributed to this story from St. Petersburg