Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, has been released after serving 30 days in jail for planning protests.
Speaking to reporters after emerging from prison on Friday, Navalny condemned what he called “genuine acts of intimidation and terror” by Russian authorities, which in recent weeks have put down protests in the capital, Moscow.
“The movement will continue to grow and the regime will strongly regret what it has done,” he said.
Navalny has continued to urge his supporters to take to the streets, which could lead authorities to detain him once again.
He later addressed supporters in an Instagram message:
“We will not be frightened. We despise the cowardly and thieving authorities. Before, they needed to lie and falsify the elections to win, now they are arresting candidates and beating peaceful protesters.”
Navalny was arrested in Moscow on July 24 as he left his home to go jogging and buy flowers for his wife’s birthday. The 43-year-old Yale-educated lawyer was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating laws on the organisation of demonstrations.
During his incarceration, he was treated in hospital for what doctors called a “severe allergic reaction”, while Navalny said he might have been poisoned.
Since mid-July, the capital has seen a wave of rallies drawing tens of thousands onto the streets after opposition figures, including allies of Navalny, were barred from standing in elections to Moscow’s city parliament on September 8.
The protests took place in the context of wider anger over declining living standards and a stalling economy.
Police have arrested around 3,000 people at the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in years, but most were released shortly after.
However, around 10 remain behind bars and are under investigation, possibly facing up to eight years in jail for participating in what prosecutors call “mass disorder”. Several others are facing related charges such as attacking police.
Crucial weeks ahead
The heavy-handed response led to an outcry, with expressions of support for the mostly young suspects and criticism of police action during the protests – even from government figures such as Alexei Kudrin, a former economy minister who now heads Russia’s Audit Chamber.
“With Navalny’s release, it remains to be seen if protests will return to the streets of Moscow as we have seen for the past 6 weeks,” Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Moscow, said.
“For this weekend and the next, all requests by the opposition to organise rallies have been rejected. In a government crackdown thousand have been arrested during unauthorised rallies. It will be interesting to see how many people in the next few weeks leading up to the Moscow elections are willing to risk arrests and possible prison terms by simply taking to the streets.”
Most opposition leaders who have been banned from participating in the Moscow vote have been jailed for violating protest laws.
Investigators this month also raided the office of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation as part of a probe into alleged acceptance of donations of laundered money. A court froze the organisation’s accounts.
As he enters his third decade in power, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped significantly and critics say the authorities fear any outlet calling for wider political change.
Putin spoke publicly about the movement for the first time during a visit to France on Monday, vowing to prevent the emergence of any mass demonstrations in Moscow like the “yellow vest” anti-government protests that erupted in France late last year.