ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) – Protesters demonstrating against this weekend’s Group of Eight summit are barely visible, but not by choice. Authorities have limited their activities to a stadium in a hard-to-reach part of the city.

“At this stadium, it’s like we are in the zoo, fenced in with these bars,” said Ivan Lokh, one of about 400 people who came Friday to the Russian Social Forum, the formal name of the protest gathering. “The authorities want to show there’s no opposition in the country.”

The gathering indeed gives an image of activists appearing inconsequential amid the vast bowl of a 50,000-seat stadium. But organizers said authorities were taking steps harsher than just image control.

More than 200 people were detained en route to the “counter-summit” or removed from planes and trains, and countless others harassed and intimidated by police, organizers said. Some have been sentenced to short jail terms on trumped-up charges, they said.

The German Foreign Ministry said two German university students who came to report on the protests had been sentenced to 10 days in jail.

“It is the first time in recent Russian history that we have seen such a massive, coordinated nation campaign of pressure against activists,” said Stanislav Margelov, a lawyer working with the loose alliance of groups that organized the gathering.

The claims of repression underline Western concerns about Russia’s democratic intentions under President Vladimir Putin, and G-8 leaders are expected to raise the issue at the summit, which runs today through Monday.

Russian authorities denied unfair treatment of the protesters.

“In our view, all the conditions for expressing one’s view, for conveying one’s position to the media … have been created” for them, said Vladimir Kozhin, the Kremlin’s deputy chief organizer of the G-8 summit. He said complaints about detentions “are being looked into.”

Kozhin also defended the stadium location as “practically the center of the city.”

The stadium is at the far end of a vast park on one of St. Petersburg’s islands, about two miles from the nearest public transport. And that subway station was to be closed during the summit for “ongoing work,” signs posted Friday morning said. The signs were later removed.

Security was tight ahead of the summit.

Helicopters swooped over the city’s glittering domes and spires and frogmen in camouflage dove below boats and hydrofoils plying the nearby Gulf of Finland.

Cruises on the city’s winding canals and rivers – a popular tourist activity – are banned for the duration of the summit, and the airport was closed to commercial flights for the same period.

Even the park where the stadium lies is under tight rein. A complex of amusement rides was shut down through Monday and nearby kiosks and game booths were idle.

St. Petersburg Mayor Valentina Matviyenko made an unexpected visit to the stadium Friday, and characterized the decision to make it available to protesters as a sign of “hospitality.”

She noted that the summit itself is taking place in a distant suburb of the city.

One protest organizer, Ilya Ponomarev, pleaded with Matviyenko to “just allow one march.” But the mayor said none would be allowed because of “radical elements” in the anti-globalist movement.

Ponomarev later said protesters would attempt “a peaceful march” on Saturday.

The Communist Party has been granted permission to hold a rally Saturday in the city center, with participants meeting elsewhere and walking informally to the site in an attempt to skirt the ban on marches.



Associated Press writers Maria Danilova and Irina Titova contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-14-06 1544EDT


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