Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan 23, 2021.
MOSCOW (AFP, REUTERS) – Russian police detained more than a thousand people across Russia on Saturday (Jan 23) as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Mr Putin’s most charismatic critic urged mass rallies after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and returning to Moscow last weekend following months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
Saturday’s rallies are expected to be a major test of the opposition’s ability to mobilise despite increasing Kremlin pressure on critics and the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the demonstrations, Mr Navalny’s team released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Mr Putin. Since its release the video has been viewed more than 65 million times.
In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, demonstrators gathered in the city centre, chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom to Navalny!” AFP footage shows police in full riot gear running after protesters and beating them with batons.
Protests also took place in other cities in the Far East and Siberia including Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Chita where several thousand turned out, Mr Navalny supporters said.
In Yakutsk south of the Arctic Circle, protesters wrapped up against the cold rallied in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 1,090 people, including 300 in Moscow and 162 in St Petersburg, had been detained across Russia, a number likely to rise. It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up.
Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Alexei Navalny, said she was one of the people detained.
“Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van,” she wrote on Instagram with an accompanying photo, after thousands of Navalny supporters joined nationwide demonstrations against the Kremlin.
Moscow police grab Navalny supporters before rally
Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки
Moscow police vowed a tough crackdown, with police saying unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed”.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said the scale and sweep of the protests in the regions was unusual.
“Everyone must be really fed up with the stealing and lies if the regions have risen up like this without waiting for Moscow. Hundreds and thousands even in small cities,” he wrote on Twitter.
Authorities have said the protests are illegal because they had not been properly authorised.
Mobile phone and internet services suffered outages on Saturday, the monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves and share video footage online.
Mr Navalny, 44, who is being held in Moscow’s high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
“I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison’s walls and help will come,” he said on Friday.
Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on Jan 23, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Mr Navalny’s wife Yulia said she would join the Moscow protest “For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share,” she said on Instagram.
Ahead of the demonstrations several key aides of Mr Navalny including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences.
The Investigative Committee on Friday launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Mr Navalny for 30 days, and his supporters fear that authorities are preparing to sentence him to a long prison term to silence him.
The “Putin’s palace” report released by Mr Navalny alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 sq m mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
A number of public figures – including those who usually steer clear of politics – have spoken out in Navalny’s support.
Police cracked down in the run-up to the rallies, rounding up several of Navalny’s allies they accused of calling for illegal protests and jailing at least two of them, including Navalny’s spokeswoman, for more than a week each.
Many took to social media – including video sharing app TikTok hugely popular with teens – to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.
Authorities also announced a criminal investigation against Navalny supporters over calls urging minors to attend illegal rallies that it said were made on various social networks.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Mr Navalny was trending on TikTok and videos demanding his release garnered hundreds of millions of views.
Elsewhere, demonstrations in support of Navalny were held in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia. Several hundred people gathered at Freedom Square in the centre of the Estonian capital Tallinn and later marched to the Russian embassy.
Organisers asked participants to stand in groups of 10 people at most in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions. Some held up portraits of Navalny, others had signs reading “Free Navalny!” and “No to Dictatorship!”.
The protesters were joined by environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova, who fled from Russia to Estonia in 2015 fearing a crackdown on the opposition. One participant, Eva, 26, who declined to give her surname, said she had also moved to Estonia, as had two of her friends who were also at the demonstration.
“This agenda is very important to us: freedom of speech, freedom of everything in Russia, feeling protected and safe,” she said. “Luckily, that’s exactly how we feel here, and we’d really love it if it were possible to always feel this way in Russia.”
A small protest was also held in the Estonian city of Narva on the border with Russia, while around 100 people rallied in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
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