Wife of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny among more than 2,500 people arrested in nationwide protests
Police have detained more than 2,500 people across Russia, including the wife of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, after protesters defied bitter cold and gathered in cities across Russia to demand the opposition figure’s release.
- At least 40,000 people attended the Moscow protest, according to a Reuters estimate
- Protests were also held in dozens of other cities and towns across Russia
- Officials said the protests are illegal as they were not properly authorised
Mr Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after he was arrested last weekend as he returned to Moscow for the first time since being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August. He had been treated in Germany.
In central Moscow, police detained at least 100 people before the protest had even begun, bundling them into nearby vans.
Yulia Navalnaya, Mr Navalny’s wife, was arrested at the Moscow protest according to a post she wrote on her Instagram account from inside a police van.
At least 40,000 people joined a protest in central Moscow according to a Reuters estimate, while rallies also took place in dozens of other cities and towns.
“And if we stay silent, it will go on forever.”
Some protesters in Moscow chanted “Putin is a thief”, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and “disgrace” as police swept people off the streets.
Video footage from Vladivostok showed riot police chasing a group of protesters down the street, while demonstrators in Khabarovsk, braving temperatures of around -14 degrees Celsius, chanted: “Bandits!”
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world where the temperature was -52C on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage from the scene showed.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said Russian police detained an estimated 2,662 people.
It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 40 towns and cities. Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said the scale and sweep of the protests in the regions was unusual.
Authorities have said the protests were illegal because the proper permissions had not been given for them to take place. Mr Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days earlier this week for alleged parole violations
There was no comment on the protests from the Kremlin.
Mobile phone and internet services suffered outages on Saturday, the monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves and share video footage online.
The United States on Saturday called on Russia to release detained protesters and journalists, and condemned what it called “harsh tactics” used against them.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, calling for Mr Navalny’s “unconditional” release.
‘Putin Palace’ video released ahead of protests
Mr Navalny, an ex-lawyer who has accused Mr Putin of ordering his murder, could face years in jail over legal cases that he calls trumped up. Mr Putin has denied involvement in the poisoning.
Mr Navalny’s supporters are hoping they can produce a show of anti-Kremlin street support, despite winter conditions and the coronavirus pandemic, to pressure the authorities into freeing him.
The West has told Moscow to let him go, sparking new tensions in already strained Russia ties as US President Joe Biden launches his administration.
In a push to galvanise support ahead of the protests, Mr Navalny’s team released a video about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Mr Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 65 million times.
Police cracked down in the run-up to the rallies, rounding up several of Mr Navalny’s allies they accused of calling for illegal protests and jailing at least two of them, including Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman, for more than a week each.
Authorities also announced a criminal investigation against Mr Navalny’s supporters over calls urging minors to attend illegal rallies that it said were made on various social networks.
Mr Navalny’s allies hope to tap into what polls say are pent-up frustrations among the public over years of falling wages and the economic fallout from the pandemic.
However Mr Putin’s grip on power looks unassailable, and the 68-year-old president regularly records an approval rating of over 60 per cent, much higher than that of Mr Navalny.