Russian police rounded up nearly 1,800 protesters on Wednesday, according to a monitoring group, as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny took to the streets to participate in rallies sparked by reports of his failing health in prison.
Allies of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken opponent, who began a hunger strike three weeks ago over his alleged mistreatment by prison authorities, fear he could soon die and have demanded he is given proper medical care.
The mass demonstrations across Russia’s vast territory took place hours after President Vladimir Putin delivered a state-of-the-nation speech, in which he did not mention Navalny.
Officials have said Navalny has been treated as any other prisoner would be and had denounced the demonstrations as illegal.
But protesters ignored those calls and gathered in nearly 100 towns and cities throughout the country, including the capital Moscow, Vladivostok, a number of cities in Siberia, and the central city of Vladimir, where Navalny is being held in a penal colony.
Police arrested a total of 1,791 people in connection with the rallies, protest monitoring group OVD-Info said. The figure included 806 arrests in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, and 119 in the Urals city of Ufa.
Dozens were detained before the protests even began, including two top Navalny associates in Moscow.
‘The last gasps of a free Russia’
The capital saw the largest protests, with thousands of demonstrators marching through the city’s centre.
Protesters, who were joined by Navalny’s wife Yulia, chanted, “Freedom to Navalny!” and “Let the doctors in!”
“This is one of the last gasps of a free Russia, as many are saying,” said Marina, a student at the Moscow protest.
“We came out for Alexey … against a war in Ukraine and the wild propaganda,” she added, citing simmering tensions between the Kremlin and Kyiv.
Police arrested 30 people for taking part in the demonstration, according to OVD-Info. But reports of the exact number of people who attended the Moscow protest varied wildly.
Police said 6,000 people took part, while Navalny’s YouTube channel said turnout in the capital was up to 10 times higher.
The opposition had hoped Wednesday’s rallies would be the biggest in modern Russian history, and presented them as an attempt to save Navalny’s life by persuading authorities to allow his own doctors to treat him.
But overall turnout looked smaller than the pro-Navalny protests held earlier this year, before the opposition leader was jailed for two and a half years for alleged parole violations in a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has rejected as fabricated.
That wave of demonstrations saw tens of thousands protest across Russia, the largest show of public dissent in the country in years.
The Kremlin denounced the protests as illegal and police arrested thousands of participants.
UN experts warn Navalny’s life in ‘serious danger’
Navalny’s case has attracted widespread attention since he was arrested in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – an accusation officials have routinely rejected as false.
His fate has become a flashpoint in Moscow’s souring relations with the West, which have also been aggravated by economic sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and a Russian military buildup near Ukraine.
The United States has warned Russia it will face “consequences” if he dies.
United Nations human rights experts have meanwhile urged Moscow to let Navalny be medically evaluated abroad, warning in a statement on Wednesday that his life was in “serious danger”.
“We are deeply troubled that Mr. Navalny is being kept in conditions that could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in a facility that reportedly does not meet international standards,” the experts said.
Russia has dismissed the comments from abroad as foreign interference in its domestic affairs.
In his address on Wednesday, Putin warned the West not to cross Russia’s “red lines”.
“We want good relations … and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin said.
“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”