Nearly 1,400 people were detained in Russia during Tuesday’s protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, rights monitors say.
In Moscow, riot police were filmed beating demonstrators with batons. Mr Navalny, 44, was earlier jailed for three-and-a-half years for violating the conditions of a suspended sentence, he says the case was fabricated. He returned to Russia in January after being treated in Germany for a near-fatal nerve agent attack last August.
Mr Navalny says Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack with the Novichok agent, describing him as a “poisoner”. The Kremlin denies the allegation. The EU, the US and the UK have all condemned Tuesday’s court verdict, demanding the opposition leader be immediately released. Hundreds of protesters gathered in central Moscow after the court’s decision. Soon there were violent scenes in the capital, with video on social media showing police beating and arresting those who came out to support Mr Navalny, one journalist was seen being hit on the head with a baton by a police officer.
Russia’s OVD-Info human rights monitors said 1,116 people were detained on Tuesday in Moscow, and 246 in St Petersburg, the country’s second-largest city. Another 15 people were held in smaller Russian cities, the authorities have not commented on the reported numbers. Last month, thousands of people had been detained during two days of protests across the country. On Tuesday night, security forces “took” the centre of Moscow, arrest-squads deployed in vast numbers to all the main roads and squares. In body armours and helmets, they formed long lines beneath the multi-coloured street lights still hanging up from New Year, protesters were massively outnumbered. The official show of force was like a postscript to the message sent by imprisoning Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin is fully ready to crush those who challenge its authority, but Mr Navalny’s supporters refuse to be silent.
Hundreds were detained tonight, and judging by the honking car horns in central Moscow – a new phenomenon – many more people are angered by what happened on Tuesday, than those ready to risk taking to the streets in open protest. Mr Navalny has been accused of breaking the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement that required him to report regularly to Russian police. His lawyers say the accusation is absurd as the authorities knew he was recovering in Berlin from the nerve agent attack that nearly killed him in Russia. Addressing the court shortly before the sentencing, Mr Navalny said the case was being used to frighten the opposition: “This is how it works: they send one to jail to intimidate millions.”
On the Novichok chemical attack, he said: “Using the FSB [Federal Security Service of Russia], Putin attempted to commit murder. I’m not the only one – many know this already and many others will. And this is driving the thieving little man in the bunker crazy. “No matter how much he tries to look like a geopolitician, he took offence at me because he will go down in history as a poisoner.” Mr Navalny’s return to Russia on 17 January triggered mass protests in support of him, many of them young Russians who have only ever experienced President Putin’s rule. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack on him, and rejects the conclusion by Western experts that Novichok – a Russian chemical weapon – was used.
Strong international reaction to the sentence came quickly, with the Council of Europe – the continent’s leading human rights body – saying the judgement “defied all credibility”. “With this decision, the Russian authorities not only further exacerbate human rights violations as already established by the European Court of Human Rights, they also send a signal undermining the protection of the rights of all Russian citizens,” said the council’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, in a statement. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the ruling as “perverse”, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the verdict was a “bitter blow to firmly established civil liberties and the rule of law”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Mr Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, and said he would work closely with allies to hold Russia accountable for “failing to uphold the rights of its citizens”.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by telling Western countries to focus on their own problems. “You should not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” she said on Russian TV. Mr Navalny accuses Mr Putin of running an administration riddled with corruption, and recently released a YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea palace which, he alleged, was a Russian billionaires’ gift to the president. More than 100 million people have watched the video. On Saturday Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire businessman close to Mr Putin, said he owned the palace and had bought it two years ago, but on Sunday some protesters brandished gold-coloured toilet brushes, a symbol of their anger about the palace. For a second weekend, crowds defied bitter cold and a massive deployment of riot police, and more than 5,000 were arrested, according to OVD-Info group.
OVD-Info says it is an independent Russian media project, which gets crowdfunding in Russia and its donors include the Memorial human rights group and the European Commission. Mr Navalny was already serving a 30-day sentence in connection with the embezzlement case, which he denounces as politically motivated. In recent days police have arrested many of Mr Navalny’s top aides, who assist him in his Anti-Corruption Network (FBK).