Russian raids follow mass weekend protests for release of prominent Putin critic who was poisoned and nearly died.
The brother and aides of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny have been placed under house arrest ahead of new planned rallies where Russian authorities warned protesters could face charges of taking part in “mass unrest”.
Kremlin critics say authorities are dramatically ramping up pressure on the Russian opposition in an effort to intimidate protesters and smother dissent ahead of new nationwide rallies planned for Sunday.
Navalny’s brother Oleg, prominent aide Lyubov Sobol and Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina were placed under house arrest until March 23 for allegedly violating restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic by calling for people to join protests.
The coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow office, Oleg Stepanov, and Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of the medical workers’ union critical of the government, were also placed under house arrest for two months.
Navalny’s brother was released from prison in 2018 after three and a half years behind bars for an embezzlement conviction Kremlin critics say was politically motivated.
The pressure on Navalny’s family and associates grew after tens of thousands of Russians rallied last weekend in support of President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal domestic critic, who survived a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.
Navalny’s team has urged new protests, suggesting residents of Moscow gather on Sunday in Lubyanka Square outside the headquarters of the FSB security agency and Staraya Square, where the presidential administration has its offices.
More than 4,000 protesters were detained across the country last weekend and authorities launched a number of criminal probes.
Several Navalny associates, including Sobol, were detained following police raids on their apartments and offices this week.
Moscow eased coronavirus restrictions earlier this week, allowing bars and restaurants to stay open all night and offices to be fully staffed, citing a steep decline in infections.
However, city officials refrained from lifting a ban on mass gatherings.
The Investigative Committee of Russia, which probes major crimes, also announced on Friday that Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s regional network based in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, was wanted on charges of calling minors to join unauthorised rallies.
In a message from jail on Thursday, Navalny urged Russians to stage new rallies.
“The majority is on our side. Let’s wake them up,” he wrote from Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina, a high-security detention centre.
Police detained the 44-year-old anti-graft campaigner at a Moscow airport after he returned to Russia on January 17 from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with Novichok, a Soviet-designed nerve toxin.
A makeshift court at a police station last week ordered Navalny placed in custody until February 15.
On Thursday, a court rejected an appeal by his lawyers to release him from custody ahead of a high-profile trial set to begin on Tuesday.
He is facing charges of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence and could be jailed for two and a half years.
Many protesters say they are angered by Navalny’s jailing after the attempt on his life he blames on the FSB domestic intelligence service.
Others were incensed by the findings of Navalny’s investigative report claiming that an opulent palace was built for Putin on the Black Sea coast.