Russian police arrested around 3,000 protesters across Russia on Saturday in a dramatic crackdown against nation-wide demonstrations demanding the Kremlin release Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.
“Navalny was arrested on Jan. 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,” The Associated Press reported Saturday. “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 fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later,” the AP continued. “Labs in Germany, France, and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.”
The incident is believed to be the second such poisoning. Navalny “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.”
Navalny and his wife returned to Russia last week, triggering his arrest. Several of his top associates were also arrested by Russian authorities and also remain in custody.
Navalny’s imprisonment struck a chord with pro-democracy activists worldwide and, within Russia, sparked dozens of demonstrations against Vladimir Putin’s government — demonstrations that Putin’s forces tried to end on Saturday.
“Russian police arrested more than 3,000 people Saturday in nationwide protests demanding the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent foe, according to a group that counts political detentions,” the AP noted. “The protests in scores of cities in temperatures as low as minus-50 C (minus-58 F) highlighted how Navalny has built influence far beyond the political and cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
The largest demonstration was in Moscow, where “an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city center.” The group clashed with police, and “demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some were beaten with batons.” Police eventually drove the protesters out of Pushkin Square only for them to regroup nearby and attempt to march to the jail where Navalny is being held, in order to again demand his release.
Journalists documenting the protests were among the arrested, as were activists who dared to give interviews to global media. Some of the participants captured the violence on social media.
Tens of thousands of people have joined protests across Russia, demanding the release of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny who was jailed last week after he returned to the country for the first time since recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent. https://t.co/fpPSEQYs2X pic.twitter.com/YVyT7b7DT7
— ABC News (@ABC) January 23, 2021
Powerful images of mass protests across Russia Saturday demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. via @RFERL https://t.co/vl2ri3bLGf pic.twitter.com/XxOw2YzXhi
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) January 24, 2021
They also captured the scale of demonstrations, documenting one protest taking place in temperatures near -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
This pro-Navalny protest in Yakutsk in the negative 50C absolutely blows my mind pic.twitter.com/1vnTqxUvtT
— Bakhti Nishanov (@b_nishanov) January 23, 2021
The Biden administration issued a statement condemning the crackdown through the State Department, noting that the “US will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.”
Russian authorities say Navalny, who, the AP noted, has been “jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds,” will face a hearing on his alleged crimes in early February.