• Sunday, Feb 28, 2021
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Kremlin dismisses calls to free Navalny, warns against protests

  • Published at 08:58 pm January 18th, 2021
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station, in Khimki, outside Moscow on January 18, 2021 AFP

Navalny was arrested on Sunday as he arrived in Russia from Germany

The Kremlin on Tuesday dismissed Western demands to release top opposition politician Alexei Navalny and criticised his calls for mass demonstrations.

Navalny was arrested on Sunday as he arrived in Russia from Germany for the first time since he was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in August and flown to Berlin in a coma.

His dramatic arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.

"We cannot and are not going to take these statements into account," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

"This is absolutely a domestic affair and we will not allow anyone to interfere in it," he said.

Peskov added that the Kremlin was concerned by Navalny's calls for his supporters to stage mass protests during a hearing on Monday in which he was jailed for 30 days.

"These calls are troubling," Peskov said.

"We are not a body that can assess this, but undoubtedly this could be grounds for analyses on the issue of calls for illegal actions," Peskov said. 

Asked if the Kremlin was worried about large-scale protests, Peskov answered: "Absolutely not."

Navalny's allies called on Russians to gather in Moscow Saturday and march towards the Kremlin after the 44-year-old opposition politician was ordered held in custody until mid-February.

Navalny was moved Monday evening to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina jail, one of the country's best guarded detention centres.

The leading Kremlin critic has repeatedly led large-scale street protests against Putin, most recently in the summer of 2019 when his allies were not allowed to take part in local elections.

Also Read - Calls abroad grow for release of Putin critic Navalny

He called his treatment illegal under Russian law and lashed out at President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of throwing the criminal code out of the window in fear.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond, but has previously said that the 44-year-old politician must face justice like any other citizen if he has done anything wrong.

Around 200 hundred Navalny supporters had gathered outside the police station in temperatures of minus 18 degrees Celsius and demanded he be set free, a Reuters witness said.

Four masked police officers detained Navalny at passport control on Sunday evening, the first time he had returned home after being poisoned by what German military tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent, a version of events the Kremlin rejects.

The rouble weakened as investors weighed the risk of new sanctions against Moscow.

Sanctions debate on monday?

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said they wanted the European Union's foreign ministers to discuss further sanctions against Russia on Monday for detaining Navalny, whose foundation specializes in investigations into alleged official corruption.

Some of the foundation's targets have taken legal action and some critics have upbraided Navalny in the past for espousing overly nationalist views, something he rejects.

A possible target of any new penalties would be Nord Stream 2, a $11.6 billion project to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Germany has supported the project so far, arguing it is a commercial venture, and government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday that had not changed.

The foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, France and Italy had earlier called for Navalny's release and Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek had said he wanted the bloc to discuss possible sanctions.

The UN human rights office called for Navalny's immediate release and demanded due process in line with the rule of law. Both Jake Sullivan, one of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's top aides, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have criticised the arrest.

The Russian Foreign Ministry brushed off all the criticism.

"Respect international law, do not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Western countries' expressions of outrage over the detention were designed to distract their citizens from domestic problems and that Moscow was unfazed by potential damage to its image.

"We should probably think about our image, but we're not young ladies going to a ball," Lavrov told reporters.

Moscow residents interviewed by Reuters TV were divided on Navalny's detention, with some showing sympathy but others calling him foolish to come back.

"He probably did the right thing and acted like a real man (by returning)," said one Muscovite, Yuri Elizarov.

"But from a political viewpoint he didn't, because nothing is probably going to change here in the coming years."

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