Russia threatens five-year jail terms claiming pro-Navalny protesters attacked police

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Theo Merz
·4 min read
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Police officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Omsk - Yevgeny Sofiychuk /TASS
Police officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Omsk - Yevgeny Sofiychuk /TASS

Russia has opened criminal cases that could see protestors jailed for years after tens of thousands of people took to the streets at the weekend to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The crackdown came as supporters of Mr Navalny, who is facing more than a decade behind bars on charges seen as politically motivated, defied the Kremlin with calls for further rallies.

More than 3,000 people were arrested nationwide on Saturday, a record for Russian protests, in the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in years.

Investigators said they were opening criminal probes over hooliganism and violence against the police, which could see some of those who attended the rallies sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Police said 4,000 people turned out in Moscow on Saturday, but observers and media put that figure in the tens of thousands.

More than 10,000 took to the streets in Saint Petersburg and there were demonstrations in dozens of other cities across the country, including in Yakutsk, Siberia where temperatures reached -50C.

The rallies were called by Mr Navalny, Russia’s most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, after he was arrested on his return to Moscow following months in Germany recovering from a poisoning he says was orchestrated by the state.

Protesters clash with riot police during an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Moscow - Mikhail Tereshchenko /TASS
Protesters clash with riot police during an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Moscow - Mikhail Tereshchenko /TASS

Riot police charged demonstrators on Pushkin Square in central Moscow, using batons on the crowd.

Several bloodied demonstrators were dragged off the square, while Moscow authorities reported some 30 people were taken to hospital with injuries from the protests.

Investigators said they were looking at “a large amount of photo and video material” that showed violence against police by protesters. A widely shared clip showed officers being pelted by snowballs, while demonstrators attacked what appeared to be an FSB car in another video.

In Saint Petersburg, however, prosecutors said they would look into police violations after a video showed officers pushing over and kicking a middle-aged woman.

The hospital where she was taken said the woman was in a “serious condition” with a head injury.

The US and UK have condemned the response from Russian police, while Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the bloc would discuss “next steps” on Monday.

Polish President Andrzej Duda told the Financial Times that he supported further sanctions.

Moscow meanwhile said it would summon representatives of the US embassy over allegedly promoting the protests with a safety warning on its website.

Riot police officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg - Alexander Demianchuk /TASS
Riot police officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg - Alexander Demianchuk /TASS

The Kremlin, which has consistently sought to play down Mr Navalny’s political significance, said on Sunday that “few people” had come to the protests compared to the “many” who voted for Mr Putin.

“If you compare the numbers, you will understand how few these people are,” said Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Leonid Volkov, who runs Mr Navalny’s network of offices across Russia, announced further mass protests at the weekend and called for a greater turnout. “Anyone who doesn’t come out is considered (by Peskov) to be pro Putin!” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Navalny and his supporters say his poisoning was carried out by the FSB on the orders of Mr Putin, a charge the Kremlin denies.

Multiple laboratory tests in Europe showed the opposition leader was poisoned with a chemical from the same Novichok group used against former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Mr Putin has denied the Russian state was behind the attack on Mr Navalny, despite a sting by the opposition leader last year in which an FSB agent apparently confirmed details of the operation during a recorded phone call.

While many at the rallies on Saturday were supporters of Mr Navalny, some said they had mixed feelings about the opposition leader but were drawn to the streets because of wider anger over Mr Putin’s 20-year rule.