MOSCOW (AFP) – Russian police detained over 250 protesters yesterday as activists took to the streets across the country demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Despite authorities ramping up pressure on the opposition with arrests and criminal probes, Navalny aides have called for new nationwide demonstrations ahead of the opposition leader’s trial set to start on February 2.
The first protests took place in the Far East, including the port city of Vladivostok where several dozen protesters gathered in the city’s central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally.
“The desire to live in a free country is stronger than the fear of being detained,” 25-year-old student Andrei, who preferred not to give his last name, told AFP.
AFP footage from Vladivostok showed dozens of protesters escaping the police on the frozen waters of the Amur Bay and circle dancing.
Russian authorities have issued several warnings against participating in the unauthorised rallies and threatened criminal charges against protesters.
According to independent monitors, at least 261 people were detained in more than a dozen cities before the expected start of the rally in Moscow, which usually mobilises the largest crowds.
In an unprecedented move police in the capital announced the closure of seven metro stations and said movement of pedestrians would be limited in the city centre.
Moscow authorities also said some centrally located restaurants and shops will close and overground transport diverted.
Police detained 44-year-old Navalny at a Moscow airport on January 17 as he arrived from Germany, where he had been recovering from exposure to a Soviet-designed nerve toxin.
A makeshift court at a police station ordered the anti-graft campaigner placed in custody until his trial on charges of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence.
The Moscow rally is due to take place outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSS), Russia’s main security agency, which Navalny said carried out the near-fatal poisoning attack on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
“The majority is on our side. Let’s wake them up,” Navalny said on Thursday in a message from Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina, a high-security detention centre.
Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of over 100 cities across the country last Saturday to protest Putin’s 20-year-rule.
More than 4,000 demonstrators were detained while authorities launched a series of criminal probes.
Authorities are also targetting online platforms demanding they delete posts with calls for rallies or face fines. The country’s media watchdog said on Friday it summoned representatives of several social networks, including Facebook and TikTok, for failing to comply.
This week several Navalny associates, including lawyer Lyubov Sobol and his brother Oleg, have been placed under house arrest until late March pending charges for violating coronavirus restrictions by calling people to join protests.