Several close allies of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been put under house arrest, as police warned people not to join a second round of anti-Kremlin protests to demand his release from prison.
Mr Navalny's anti-corruption foundation has announced demonstrations in at least 100 towns and cities across Russia on Sunday, a fortnight after he was jailed on his return home after recovering abroad from a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia.
A Moscow court on Friday ordered Mr Navalny's brother, Oleg, the head of his Moscow office Oleg Stepanov and Anastasia Vasilyeva, the leader the Navalny-backed Alliance of Doctors, to be confined to house arrest for their part in rallies last weekend that drew tens of thousands of people and led to some 4,000 arrests.
Lawyer and senior Navalny aide Lyubov Sobol and Maria Alyokhina, co-founder of the Pussy Riot protest group, received the same pre-trial order. All five are accused of breaking coronavirus restrictions by calling for a mass gathering.
Russia’s interior ministry said it had information that organisers of Sunday’s protests “are urging their supporters to act aggressively” towards police “so as to cause clashes . . . and discredit the authorities”.
"In this case, your personal safety may be at risk. We strongly recommend that you warn your children who are minors, other relatives and friends against participating in unauthorised protests," said spokeswoman Irina Volk.
The Russian prosecutor general’s office also called on the national communications regulator to block access to social media sites carrying calls to join protests, citing the need to “prevent displays of extremism and mass disturbances”.
Many young Russians have been vocal supporters of the demonstrations online, and the authorities have accused Mr Navalny and allies of “dragging children” into politics and jeopardising their safety and future prospects.
His protest call was boosted by his foundation's latest video report, which accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of secretly owning a €1 billion palace on the Black Sea; it has been watched more than 101 million times on YouTube in 10 days.
Mr Navalny was held at a Moscow airport on January 17th for allegedly breaching the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud; his brother Oleg spent 3½ years in jail after the same trial, which was widely seen as politically motivated and the European Court of Human Rights found to be illegitimate.
Prosecutors say that late last year Mr Navalny failed to present himself as required at a Moscow police station. At the time, he was recovering in Germany from poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent, after a murder attempt that he believes was conducted by state security on Mr Putin's orders.
“This is not just lawlessness, but demonstrative lawlessness, to intimidate me and everyone else,” Mr Navalny told a Moscow court on Thursday, when it extended his pre-trial detention until at least February 15th.
“A huge number of people, tens of millions of people agree with me,” he said by video link from jail. “And we will never allow [Mr Putin and his allies] to seize and steal our country. Yes, now force is on your side . . . but it won’t be that way forever.”