More than 2,600 arrested as protesters across Russia demand Navalny’s release

Demonstrators calling for the opposition leader to be freed braved temperatures as low as minus 50C in some places.

Navalny Protests
Navalny Protests

More than 2,600 people have been arrested after protests erupted in at least 60 Russian cities to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.

The protests, which took place in temperatures as low as minus 50C in some place, highlighted how Navalny’s influence stretches far beyond the political and cultural centres of Moscow and St Petersburg.

In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 protesters gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city centre, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were dragged off by riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some activists were beaten with police batons.

Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those arrested.

Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about half a mile away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.

A protest in Omsk
Police stand guard during a protest in the Siberian city of Omsk (AP)

Some demonstrators later went to protest near the jail where Navalny is being held. Police made an undetermined number of arrests there.

The protests stretched across Russia’s vast territory, from the island city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk north of Japan and the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where temperatures plunged to minus 50C, to the more populous European cities.

The range demonstrated how Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign have built an extensive network of support despite official government repression and being routinely ignored by state media.

The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests, said at least 1,045 people were detained in Moscow and more than 375 at another large demonstration in St Petersburg.

Overall, it said 2,662 people had been arrested in some 90 cities, revising the count downward from its earlier report of 3,445. The group, which conducts its count through regional associates and runs a hotline for information, did not give an explanation for its revision, and Russian police did not provide arrest figures.

Pro-Navalny protests
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Russia (AP)

Undeterred, Navalny’s supporters have called for fresh protests next weekend.

Navalny was arrested on January 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a severe nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, and which Russian authorities deny.

Authorities say his stay in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 criminal conviction, while Navalny says the conviction was for made-up charges.

Navalny Protests
Hundreds were arrested in a show of support for the opposition leader, who could face more than three years in jail (AP)

The 44-year-old activist is well known nationally for his reports on the corruption that has flourished under President Vladimir Putin’s government.

His wide support puts the Kremlin in a strategic bind — risking more protests and criticism from the West if it keeps him in custody, but apparently unwilling to back down by letting him go free.

In a statement, the US state department condemned “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia” and called on Russian authorities to immediately release Navalny and all those detained at protests.

Navalny faces a court hearing in early February to determine whether his sentence in the criminal case for fraud and money-laundering – which Navalny says was politically motivated – is converted to three and a half years behind bars.

On Thursday, Moscow police arrested three top Navalny associates, two of whom were later jailed for periods of nine and 10 days.

Russia Navalny
Alexei Navalny was arrested after returning to Moscow from Germany (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20.

He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning.

An arrest in Moscow
Police detain a man in Moscow during pro-Navalny protests (AP)

Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up.

The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralised by repressions.

He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he said were politically motivated.

He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face. He was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but which many suspected was a poisoning.

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