Russia arrests thousands as crackdown on Navalny allies continues

Police ramp up pressure on opposition with arrests and criminal probes as Navalny allies gather for new protests.

Russian police detained thousands of people as protesters took to the streets across the country demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny.

At least 5,021 people were detained nationwide on Sunday, including 1,608 in Moscow, according to OVD-Info, a protest monitoring group.

Security forces detained Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Navalny, at a protest in Moscow, his supporters said on social media.

Navalnaya was also detained at a similar demonstration in support of her husband last week.

The first rallies took place in the Far East, including the port city of Vladivostok where protesters gathered in the city’s central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally.

“The desire to live in a free country is stronger than the fear of being detained,” said Andrei, 25, who declined to give his last name.

Footage from Vladivostok showed dozens of protesters escaping the police on the frozen waters of the Amur Bay and circle dancing. More than 100 arrests were made there.

Videos posted online showed demonstrators being hauled into buses by police. The mostly young people were seen dancing and chanting: “Putin is a thief,” and “Freedom for Russia.”

Interior ministry spokeswoman Irina Volk denounced the demonstrators.

“In the current circumstances, the risk of the protests’ … provocations is increasing and their aim is to violate civil order. In this situation, your personal safety can be under threat. We strongly recommend you to warn your underage children, other relatives and acquaintance from participating in the unauthorised events,” she said.

Yulia, a 40-year-old protester in Moscow, said she had come to the protests despite having a panic attack the night before because of worrying about repercussions for taking part.

“I understand that I live in a totally lawless state. In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently,” she said, only giving her first name.

Despite authorities ramping up pressure on the opposition with arrests, Navalny aides called for new nationwide demonstrations ahead of the opposition leader’s trial set to start on Tuesday.

The United States urged Russia to release Navalny and criticised the crackdown on protests.

“The US condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter.

Near-fatal poisoning

Navalny, 44, was arrested on January 17 after flying back to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning. His detention sparked nationwide protests in about 100 cities last week. Nearly 4,000 people were reported arrested.

Navalny’s team initially called for Sunday’s protest to be held outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s main security agency, which Navalny said carried out the near-fatal poisoning attack on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin denies the allegation.

Facing police cordons around the square, the protest shifted to other central squares and streets.

In an unprecedented move, police in the capital announced the closure of seven metro stations and said movement of pedestrians would be limited in the city centre.

At one point, crowds of demonstrators walked toward the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny is being held. They were met by phalanxes of riot police who pushed the march back and chased protesters through courtyards, detaining scores and beating some with clubs.

Still, demonstrators continued to march around the Russian capital, zigzagging around police cordons.

Several thousand people marched across Russia’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg, and occasional scuffles erupted as some demonstrators pushed back police who tried to make detentions. Nearly 800 were arrested.

Volk cited the coronavirus pandemic in a Saturday warning against protests. She said participants found in violation of COVID regulations could face criminal charges.

“The Russian interior ministry units and other law enforcement will use all necessary measures to ensure public order at sites of mass events. Moreover, we warn that any violent actions against officers or refusal to obey their lawful orders will be prevented,” she said.

“Individuals who commit such illegal actions will be detained and held accountable according to the law.”

Navalny brother, lawyer arrested

The protests in support of Navalny last week were the largest and most widespread seen in Russia in many years, and authorities have sought to prevent a repeat. Police conducted a series of raids this week at apartments and offices of Navalny’s family, associates and anti-corruption organisation.

His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put under two-month house arrest on Friday, as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during last weekend’s protests.

Sergei Smirnov, editor of the Mediazona news site that was founded by members of the Pussy Riot punk collective, was detained by police upon leaving his home on Saturday.

The independent online media outlet said Smirnov was held on suspicion of taking part in a protest in Moscow last weekend, while the RIA news agency said he faces a court hearing on February 3.  He could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to 300,000 roubles or compulsory labour.

Authorities are also targeting online platforms, demanding that they delete posts with calls for rallies or face fines. The country’s media watchdog said on Friday that it summoned representatives of several social networks, including Facebook and TikTok, for failing to comply.

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.

Navalny was remanded in custody on the grounds that his months recovering in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence he received in a 2014 conviction for fraud and money laundering, a case that he has said was political revenge.

Russian authorities have also launched probes against Navalny’s associates both in Russia and abroad.

The Investigative Committee said on Friday that Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s regional network and who is based in Lithuania, was wanted on charges of calling minors to join unauthorised rallies.

On Saturday, investigators launched a fraud probe into Ukraine-based businessman Alexander Khomenko who they say funded Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation that publishes investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elites.

Black Sea palace

Its most recent video report alleging Putin was gifted a $1.35bn property on the Black Sea coast garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube becoming Navalny’s most-watched investigation.

The Kremlin has denied that the Russian president owns the opulent complex, which according to Navalny features an underground ice hockey arena, a private casino and vineyards.

State television on Friday sought to rebut opposition claims the Black Sea property was a luxurious palace by airing footage of it under construction.

Billionaire Arkady Rotenberg – Putin’s former judo partner – said on Saturday that he was the owner of the property and that he was building a hotel there.

“Now, it will no longer be a secret, I am the beneficiary,” Rotenberg said in a video published by the Mash Telegram channel. “There was a rather complicated facility, there were a lot of creditors, and I managed to become the beneficiary.”

He gave no further financial details of the purchase or how it had been funded.

Rotenberg was among the Russian officials and business executives blacklisted by the United States and other Western powers in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Source: News Agencies