Hundreds of protesters have been detained in Russia as police try to stop nationwide protests in support of jailed activist Alexei Navalny.
Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said she had been detained at a protest in the capital Moscow, where officers were breaking up the demonstrations.
Thousands of people have already taken part in rallies in Russia’s Far East.
Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile critic, called for protests after his arrest last weekend.
The opposition leader was detained on January 17 after he flew back to Moscow from Berlin, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal nerve agent attack in Russia last August.
On his return, Alexei Navalny was immediately taken into custody and found guilty of violating parole conditions. He says it is a trumped-up case designed to silence him, and called on his supporters to protest.
Several of Navalny’s close aides, including a spokeswoman, have also been detained in the run up to January 23 protests.
Prior to the rallies, Russian authorities had promised a tough crackdown, with police saying any unauthorized demonstrations and provocations would be “immediately suppressed”.
OVD Info, an independent NGO that monitors rallies, said that more than 800 people had been detained so far in protests across the country.
Thousands are currently attending a protest in Moscow’s central Pushkin Square, where police have erected metal barriers to deter demonstrators.
Russia’s interior ministry said 4,000 had turned up in Moscow, but opposition sources say it may be as high as 15,000.
One witness told Reuters at least 100 people may have been detained there already.
Among them is Lyubov Sobol, a prominent aide of Alexei Navalny who had already been fined for urging Russians to join the protests. Lyubov Sobol tweeted a video of police roughly pulling her away from an interview with reporters.
Yulia Navalnya also said she was being held by police at the same protest, posting an image on her Instagram account with the caption: “Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van.”
Several of Alexei Navalny’s key aides had already been taken into police custody in the days leading up to January 23 protests, including his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.
Prominent Navalny activists are also being held in the cities of Krasnodar, Vladivostok and Novosibirsk.
Alexei Navalny has been detained after flying back to Russia five months after he was nearly killed by a nerve agent attack last year.
The 44-year-old Kremlin critic was seen being led away by police at passport control.
Big crowds earlier gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to greet his flight from Berlin but the plane was rerouted.
Alexei Navalny says the authorities were behind the attempt on his life, an allegation backed up by investigative journalists but denied by the Kremlin.
European Council President Charles Michel described Alexei Navalny’s detainment as “unacceptable”.
He tweeted: “I call on Russian authorities to immediately release him.”
Alexei Navalny told his supporters and the media at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport just minutes before his detention: “I know that I’m right. I fear nothing.”
His lawyer was not allowed to accompany Alexei Navalny. He kissed his wife Yulia – who had flown with him from Germany – after police officers warned they would use physical force if he disobeyed their orders.
On January 17, extra riot police were deployed and metal barriers erected inside Vnukovo airport, where the plane had been originally scheduled to land.
Russian media reported that a number of activists – including key Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol – were detained.
Alexei Navalny – who received medical treatment in Germany after his poisoning – urged supporters to meet him off the flight. Thousands of people said they would go or expressed an interest, despite forecasts of extreme cold and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The activist collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia last August, and it later emerged he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities have consistently denied any role in the poisoning, and the Kremlin has rejected Alexei Navalny’s claims that President Vladimir Putin himself ordered it.
In a statement late on January 17, Russia’s penitentiary service said Alexei Navalny “had been wanted since December 29, 2020, for repeated violations of the probation period”.
The penitentiary service added that he would remain in custody until a court decision.
The authorities accuse Alexei Navalny of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always said the case was politically motivated.
Separately, Russian prosecutors have launched a new criminal case against the activist on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various NGOs, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Alexei Navalny has asserted that President Vladimir Putin is doing all he can to stop his opponent from coming back by fabricating new cases against him.
Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been held at a Moscow rally two days before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration.
Alexei Navalny was carried away struggling through the crowd of demonstrators, who had gathered to protest at President Putin’s forthcoming fourth term in office.
Moscow and St Petersburg rallies were not approved by the authorities.
At least 1,000 arrests were reportedly made at rallies across Russia.
On May 6, Alexei Navalny was released from police custody after being charged with organizing a rally and resisting the police.
Protesters on Moscow’s Pushkin Square shouted slogans such as “Down with the tsar!” – “tsar” was the historical title of Russia’s pre-revolutionary emperors – and “Russia without Putin!”. In St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, they shouted “Jail the tsar!”.
Activists have been using a Russian hash tag on Twitter which translates as “He’s not our tsar”.
Meanwhile, the pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement held a rival rally at the same location in Moscow.
Alexei Navalny, a long-time anti-corruption campaigner is not an elected politician but has led protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin and his allies since the parliamentary election of 2011.
The activist was barred from running for president against Vladimir Putin this year because of a conviction for embezzlement, which he denies, saying the case against him was politically motivated.
Alexei Navalny has been arrested at protests on numerous occasions before, and is typically held for a few weeks before being released.
Reports say he was forced to stay at a secret location on May 4 in order to make it to the Moscow rally at all.
When the Moscow city authorities warned people of possible “negative consequences” of taking part in unsanctioned rallies on May 5, Alexei Navalny tweeted back: “And I would like to warn everyone of the negative consequences of non-participation in the rallies.”
He added: “If you stay at home, Putin’s gang will tear the country apart and deprive you personally of a future.”
Vladimir Putin was re-elected president with more than 76% of the vote, his best ever election performance.
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