The former mayor of Russia’s fourth-largest city has been arrested on charges of undermining the country’s military, part of a crackdown on critics of Moscow’s military action in Ukraine.
Police arrested Yevgeny Roizman, 59, on Wednesday following searches at his apartment and office.
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Roizman told reporters he was charged under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Russian courts fined Roizman three times earlier this year on similar charges, paving the way for a criminal case the law authorises for repeat offences.
“The suspect was detained in Yekaterinburg and will be taken to Moscow for investigation,” the Moscow branch of Russia’s interior ministry said in a statement.
It said he faces criminal charges of “discrediting” the Russian army and will be brought to Moscow as part of the investigation.
Roizman, a sharp critic of the Kremlin, is one of the most visible and charismatic opposition figures in Russia. During his tenure as mayor, he enjoyed broad popularity in Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million in the Ural Mountains.
Shortly after his arrest, several local residents picketed in a show of support for the former official.
Cautious words of support also came from Roizman’s longtime political rival, the governor of Russia’s Sverdlovsk region.
“We used to be and continue to be political opponents. The law is the law. But, like any person, he deserves fairness and respect, and I hope he gets them,” Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev said in a video statement posted on Telegram.
Roizman was a lawmaker between 2003 and 2007. In 2013, he became Russia’s highest-profile opposition mayor and held the position for five years.
As police escorted him from his apartment, Roizman told reporters that he would likely be brought to Moscow for investigation. Later in the day, his lawyer said that the politician was officially detained for 48 hours.
Roizman said that the criminal charges against him were triggered by him calling the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine an “invasion”. The Kremlin has described it as a “special military operation”.
“I was saying that everywhere, and I will say it now,” the politician added.
In a recent interview with the AFP news agency, Roizman said he has “no illusions” and understood that he could face arrest for his views.
“But I also have no fear,” he said.
Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament approved legislation that outlawed disparaging the military and the spread of “false information” about the military operations in Ukraine.
Russian courts have increasingly handed out fines and, occasionally, prison terms to critics of Moscow’s action in Ukraine.
According to Net Freedoms, a legal aid group focusing on free speech cases, as of mid-August there were up to 4,000 administrative cases on charges of disparaging the armed forces.
Another human rights group, OVD-Info, counted a total of 90 criminal cases on the charges of spreading false information about the military in the six months since February 24. The group’s report released on Wednesday also pointed to 16,437 detentions for protesting against the military campaign during the past six months.