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Who are the Cossack militia men seen whipping Pussy Riot in Sochi?

WATCH: Cossack Militia pepper sprays and whips members of Pussy Riot and their followers

The uniformed men seen whipping and punching members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot outside of a restaurant in Olympic host city Sochi on Wednesday were a part of a conservative militia Russian authorities tasked with security patrols.

The uniform-clad men were members of a Cossack militia.

READ MORE: IOC: Pussy Riot protest at Olympic sites ‘wholly inappropriate’

The Cossacks, descendant from medieval settlers and farmers who traditionally inhabited southern Russia’s Caucuses region and parts Ukraine, are known for their strong beliefs in Russian Orthodoxy, traditional values, and “disciplined way of life.”

Cossack militias are deeply rooted in Russian law enforcement and are said to have a “distinctly militarized culture.”

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According to Russia’s state-run Ria Novosti news agency, the Cossacks were employed to “ruthlessly quell popular rebellion in Tsarist times and were repressed under the Soviets.”

But, nowadays, they carry out a mix of “self-appointed vigilante police duties” and “semi-official” tasks, such as security patrols at the Olympic Games.

Ria Novosti reported more than 400 Cossacks have been taking part in security operations in Sochi since early January.

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “Cossack patrols are part of the Russian identity.”

Putin, speaking in a question and answer interview, also said the Cossacks are at time more efficient than police.

In 2012, city officials in Moscow had Cossack militias patrol Moscow streets. The patrols did not have the authority to enforce laws.

That same year, Russia’s defence ministry signed an agreement with a Cossack security group to help guard military facilities.

The Cossacks were at the centre of a controversy that year, when the governor of Krasnodar Krai – the Russian federal region where Sochi is located – planned to use Cossack militias to patrol immigrant groups.

Human rights groups chided Governor Aleksandr Tkachev after he announced plans for a 1,000-member Cossack security force to uphold “public order” amid tensions between migrants from the North Caucuses region and local populations, Russia Today reported at the time.

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Cossacks have also been known to be a part of crowds that have turned in opposition to gay rights protests as well as having reportedly been behind threats against Muslim groups.

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