January 23, 2021
Authorities also announced a criminal investigation against Navalny supporters. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
MOSCOW – Russian police detained more than 350 people across Russia on Saturday (Jan 23) as thousands of 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 369 people, including 67 in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, had been detained so far.
In central Moscow, police detained at least 100 people before the protest had even begun, bundling them into nearby vans. Around 1,000 people had gathered before the rally was due to start.
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 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.
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.