• Friday, Feb 26, 2021
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Police arrest over 1,500 at Russia protests backing jailed Kremlin foe Navalny

  • Published at 10:18 pm January 23rd, 2021
Russia clash police
Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021. - Navalny, 44, was detained last Sunday upon returning to Moscow after five months in Germany recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent and later jailed for 30 days while awaiting trial for violating a suspended sentence he was handed in 2014 AFP

Protesters defied the ban and bitter cold, and turned out in force

Police detained over 1,500 people and used force to break up rallies around Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters demanded the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose wife was among those detained.

Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was applied to his underpants by state security agents in August.

The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday's protests, saying they risked catching Covid-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorized event.

But protesters defied the ban and bitter cold, and turned out in force.

In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorized 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. The foreign ministry questioned Reuters' crowd estimate, using sarcasm to suggest it was too high.

"Why not just immediately say 4 million?" it quipped on its official Telegram messenger channel.

Some protesters chanted "Putin is a thief", and "Disgrace" and "Freedom to Navalny!"

Navalny's wife Yulia said on social media she had been detained at the rally. She was later released.

Some of Navalny's political allies were detained in the days before the protest; others on the day itself.

The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 1,614 people, including 513 in Moscow and 212 in St Petersburg, had been detained across Russia.

It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.

Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up. He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a US-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.

One Moscow protester, Sergei Radchenko, 53, said: "I'm tired of being afraid. I haven't just turned up for myself and Navalny, but for my son because there is no future in this country."

He added that he was frightened but felt strongly about what he called an out of control judicial system.

'Putin palace'

There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously called the protests illegal and the work of "provocateurs".

State prosecutors said they would look into alleged violence against police officers by protesters.

In Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, nearly 1,000 people demonstrated against Navalny's arrest. Small demonstrations were also held in Bulgaria and some 200-300 people protested in Paris.

Police in Siberia's Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world, where the temperature was -52 Celsius on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage showed.

In Moscow, some journalists covering the protests were detained, drawing a rebuke from the US Embassy.

"Russian authorities arresting peaceful protesters, journalists," spokesperson Rebecca Ross said on Twitter. "Appears to be a concerted campaign to suppress free speech, peaceful assembly."

There were outages on mobile phone and internet services 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.

Britain urged Russia to respect international human rights commitments, with the foreign ministry saying it was "deeply concerned by the detention of peaceful protesters".

In a push to galvanize support ahead of the protests, Navalny's team released a video this week about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 68 million times.

Navalny's allies hope to tap into what polls say are pent-up frustrations among the public over years of falling wages and economic fallout from the pandemic.

But Putin's grip on power looks unassailable for now and the 68-year-old president regularly records an approval rating of over 60%, much higher than that of Navalny.

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