FILE PHOTO: Servicemen of the Russian National Guard push people back onto sidewalks during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, Russia June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s National Guard, which polices anti-government protests, has purchased two vehicles fitted with a laser and a sonic sound system to disorient people, raising fears among the opposition they could be used to disperse peaceful protesters.
The two mini-vans, fitted with what is described as a non-lethal system, cost a total of 65.2 million roubles ($995,250) according to a public procurement order posted online which indicated they had been delivered in October.
Rosgvardiya, Russia’s National Guard, confirmed the purchases in a statement on Wednesday, but said it was wrong to call the new systems a weapon and that they were intended to be used to provide acoustic and other interference during counter-terrorism operations.
Alongside regular police, National Guard officers use batons to break up anti-Kremlin rallies and have detained hundreds of protesters at nationwide protests led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the past year.
“If necessary they could use something like this against crowds in the street,” said Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, who listed a number of other hi-tech crowd control vehicles at the authorities’ disposal.
“I want to advise our government officials,” Sobol said in an online video. “Learn not to ban demonstrations and frighten people with special vehicles and talk to people…and listen to what is being said.”
President Vladimir Putin set up the National Guard in 2016, folding in the old Interior Ministry troops, riot police and police special forces into its ranks. He named one of his former bodyguards, Viktor Zolotov, to head it.
Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn