Chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin, tens of thousands took to the streets on Sunday across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, sustaining the national protests that have rocked the Kremlin.
More than 5,000 people were detained by the police, according to a monitoring group, and some were beaten.
The mass protests came despite efforts by Russian authorities to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands demonstrated across the country last weekend in the largest and most widespread show of discontent Russia had ever seen. in years.
Despite threats of jail time, warnings to social media groups and strict police cordons, the protests again hit cities across Russia’s 11 time zones on Sunday.
Navalny’s team quickly called another protest in Moscow for Tuesday, when he will face a court hearing that could send him to prison for years.
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator who is Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested on January 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he attributes to the Kremlin.
The Russian authorities have rejected the accusations. He was arrested for allegedly violating his conditions of probation by failing to show up for meetings with law enforcement agencies when he was recovering in Germany.
The United States urged Russia to release Navalny and criticized the crackdown on the protests.
“The United States condemns the persistent use of tough tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by the Russian authorities for the second week in a row,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Blinken’s call as “gross interference in Russia’s internal affairs” and accused Washington of trying to destabilize the situation in the country by backing the protests.
On Sunday, police detained more than 5,000 people in cities across the country, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests, surpassing 4,000 arrests at demonstrations in Russia on January 23.
In Moscow, authorities introduced unprecedented security measures in the city center, closing metro stations near the Kremlin, cutting off bus traffic and ordering restaurants and shops to remain closed.
Navalny’s team initially called for Sunday’s protest to take place in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, home to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which Navalny claims was responsible for his poisoning.
In front of the police cordons around the square, the protest moved to other squares and central streets.
Police would pick people up at random and put them on police buses, but thousands of protesters marched through the city center for hours shouting “Putin, quit!” and “Putin, thief!” – a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate built for the Russian leader that appeared in a widely popular video posted by Navalny’s team.
“I am not afraid, because we are the majority,” protester Leonid Martynov said.
“We should not be afraid of the clubs because the truth is on our side.”
At one point, crowds of protesters walked towards the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny is being held.
They were greeted by phalanxes of riot police who pushed back the march and chased the protesters through the courtyards.
The protesters continued to march around the Russian capital, zigzagging around the police cordons.
Officers divided them into smaller groups and detained many, beating some with clubs and occasionally using tasers.
More than 1,600 people were detained in Moscow, including Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who was released after several hours while awaiting a court hearing on Monday on charges of participating in an unauthorized protest.
“If we keep quiet, tomorrow they will come for any of us,” he said on Instagram before going out to protest.
Amnesty International said Moscow authorities have arrested so many people that the city’s detention centers have run out of space.
“The Kremlin is waging a war against the human rights of the people in Russia, stifling protesters’ calls for freedom and change,” Natalia Zviagina, head of the group’s Moscow office, said in a statement.
Several thousand people marched through Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, shouting “Down with the Tsar!” and occasional skirmishes broke out when some protesters pushed back police officers who tried to make arrests.
Some of the largest rallies were held in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia and Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
“I don’t want my grandchildren to live in such a country,” said Vyacheslav Vorobyov, 55, who attended a rally in Yekaterinburg. “I want them to live in a free country.”
Swedish Chancellor Ann Linde, who currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, condemned “the excessive use of force by the authorities and the mass detention of peaceful protesters and journalists” and urged Russia “to liberate to all those unjustly detained, including Navalny. “
As part of a multi-faceted effort by authorities to block the protests, the courts have jailed Navalny associates and activists across the country for the past week.
His brother Oleg, senior adviser Lyubov Sobol and three other people were subjected to a two-month house arrest on Friday on charges of alleged violation of coronavirus restrictions during protests last weekend.
Prosecutors also demanded that social media platforms block calls to join the protests.
The Interior Ministry issued stern warnings to the public, saying that the protesters could be charged with participating in mass riots, which carry a prison sentence of up to eight years.
The protests were fueled by a two-hour YouTube video posted by Navalny’s team after his arrest over the Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin.
The video has been viewed more than 100 million times, inspiring a series of sarcastic jokes on the internet in the midst of an economic recession.
Russia has experienced extensive corruption during Putin’s tenure, while poverty has remained widespread.
“We all feel financially pressured, so the people taking to the streets today feel angry,” said Vladimir Perminov, who protested in Moscow.
“The rotation of the government is necessary.”
Protesters in Moscow chanted “Aqua disco!” – a reference to one of the luxurious services of the residence that also has a casino and a hookah lounge equipped to watch pole dancing.
Putin says neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property. On Saturday, construction mogul Arkady Rotenberg, a veteran Putin confidant and his occasional judo training partner, claimed that he owned the property himself.
Navalny fell into a coma on August 20 while flying from Siberia to Moscow and the pilot diverted the plane so it could be treated in the city of Omsk.
He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later. Laboratories in Germany, France, and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the nerve agent Novichok.
Russian authorities have refused to open a full-blown criminal investigation, citing lack of evidence that he was poisoned.
Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia earlier this month and imprisoned for 30 days at the request of Russia’s Prison Service, which alleges he had violated the probation of his suspended sentence of a 2014 money laundering conviction that rejected as political revenge. .
On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected Navalny’s appeal to be released, and Tuesday’s hearing could turn his suspended three-and-a-half-year sentence into one he must serve in prison.