Russian police on Saturday detained more than 1,000 people attending peaceful rallies in support of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny, in a violent response to nationwide protests expected to be the largest in the country in years.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was jailed this week when he returned from Germany, where he was recovering from an assassination attempt he says was ordered by the Kremlin, and called on his supporters to hold rallies in which he demanded his release.
According to the OVD, an independent judicial monitoring organization, police had detained 1,090 people in 81 cities across the country by 1:00 p.m. GMT, while riot police dressed in bulletproof vests and batons had surrounded Moscow’s central square where the protesters had gathered. collected.
Videos posted on social media showed six police officers with riot shields beating unarmed protesters with batons in Ekaterinbur, while in the West Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, protesters were beaten to the ground and dragged with their backpacks over the frozen snow.
“I’m tired of all these things. I’m nineteen, Putin has been in power all my life and I see no hope for the country,” said Anastasia, a student at a Moscow state university. “There’s poverty and state terrorism. And what they did to Navalny is outrageous and illegal. ”
In Moscow, protesters shouted, “Putin is a thief!” and “Free Navalny!” while passing cars sounded in support. Before the protest even began, squads of up to 10 officers bumped into the crowd in the square and seized protesters, seemingly at random, before being detained, sparking shouts of “Shame!” from spectators.
Footage from the Far East Russian city of Vladivostok, where thousands had gathered, showed riot police chasing protesters in the street, while people braved temperatures below -30 ° C to march in Siberian cities such as Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.
‘I want Russia to be free. I support Navalny. I want a future for my children, ”said Svetlana, 60, a retiree, who attended the meeting in Moscow. “I’ve had it. Everything is falling apart. There is no health care and no pension. I want things to change.”
Mr. Navanly’s team hopes that the scale of the protests, especially in eastern and Siberian cities where anti-Kremlin activity is uncommon, will put pressure on Mr. Putin’s government to release him.
Navalny was jailed on the charge of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence, which could have left him imprisoned for three and a half years. He is also facing a fraud charge with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The Kremlin, which has denied any role in the August nerve gas attack on Navalny that nearly killed him, has said the meetings are illegal. Police preemptively arrested many of Mr Navanly’s close associates this week to prevent them from attending the meetings and warned social media companies that they would be prosecuted for not removing messages promoting the protests.
Moscow has said it will ignore calls to condemn Western countries and their demands for Mr Navalny’s release, describing it as a domestic issue.