Russia arrests over 1,700 at rallies for Kremlin critic Navalny

Large crowds protest at treatment of opposition figure who is on hunger strike in jail

People at a pro-Navalny rally in Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

People at a pro-Navalny rally in Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

 

Police rounded up more than 1,700 protesters on Wednesday as Russians in dozens of cities took part in rallies organised by allies of hunger-striking Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny over his failing health in jail.

His spokeswoman was jailed for 10 days, and another close ally detained, on the same day that President Vladimir Putin delivered a state-of-the-nation speech warning the West not to cross Russia’s “red lines” and pointedly made no mention of Mr Navalny.

“This is one of the last gasps of a free Russia, as many are saying. We came out for Alexei . . . against a war in Ukraine and the wild propaganda,” said Marina, a student at the Moscow protest.

OVD-Info, a group that monitors protests and detentions, said 1,782 people had been arrested, including 804 in St Petersburg and 119 in the Urals city of Ufa.

Protesters in central Moscow chanted, “Freedom to Navalny!” and “Let the doctors in!”. Mr Navalny’s wife Yulia joined the rally in the capital, where demonstrators chanted her name.

Police officers detain a man during a protest in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia, Russia. Photograph: Anna Ogorodnik/AP
Police officers detain a man during a protest in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia, Russia. Photograph: Anna Ogorodnik/AP

The opposition had hoped the rallies would be the biggest in modern Russian history, and presented them as an attempt to save Mr Navalny’s life by persuading the authorities to allow his own doctors to treat him.

But turnout looked smaller than during protests earlier this year before Mr Navalny was jailed for 2½ years for parole violations related to what he said were politically motivated charges of embezzlement.

Police said 6,000 people protested illegally in Moscow, while Mr Navalny’s YouTube channel said turnout in the capital was up to 10 times higher. Alexey Venediktov, a veteran journalist and head of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said 10,000-15,000 people had rallied in Moscow and 7,000-9,000 in St Petersburg.

Mr Navalny (44), who last year survived a nerve agent attack that Russian authorities denied carrying out, is thin and weak after starving himself for three weeks, and his allies say he risks kidney failure or cardiac arrest. The United States has warned Russia it will face “consequences” if he dies.

The state human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, said four doctors from outside the federal prison agency had visited Mr Navalny on Tuesday and found no serious health problems. Russia says he has been treated as would any other prisoner.

Flashpoint

The confrontation over Mr Navalny’s fate is a flashpoint in Moscow’s dire relations with the West, already aggravated by economic sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and a Russian military buildup near Ukraine.

UN human rights experts urged Moscow to let Mr Navalny be medically evaluated abroad. They said they believed his life was in danger as he was being held in “conditions that could amount to torture”.

Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, and an ally, Lyubov Sobol, were detained near their Moscow homes hours before the rally in the capital. European Council president Charles Michel, who chairs European Union summits, called their arrests “deplorable”.

Ms Yarmysh was later jailed for 10 days at a hearing for inciting people to protest. Ms Sobol was released ahead of a hearing on Thursday.

Navalny aide Ruslan Shaveddinov tweeted: “This is repression. This cannot be accepted. We need to fight this darkness.”

Dozens of police vans were deployed to the centre of Moscow. The square where activists had hoped to gather was cordoned off with metal barriers, as was Red Square.

Up to about 300 people protested in Vladivostok, some toting banners saying “Freedom for political prisoners” and “No war, repressions and torture!”

“Everyone realises the current authorities have nothing new to propose for the country. We need a new generation of politicians. I see Navalny as one of them,” said Ilya, a 19-year-old student in the far eastern city of Vladivostok.

Elsewhere, riot police used force to make arrests. In Magadan, in Russia’s far east, officers forced a man to the ground and pinned back his arms.

Hunger strike

Mr Navalny launched his hunger strike over what he said was the refusal of the prison holding him to provide him with proper treatment for leg and back pain. The state prison service has said his condition is satisfactory.

Mr Navalny’s activist network faces mounting pressure. State prosecutors in Moscow began legal moves last week to ban his groups as extremist organisations.

US senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Russian government to provide Mr Navalny with medical care and called for sanctions.

“This is barbarism playing out in real time, and we cannot be silent,” he said. – Reuters