Hundreds arrested amid protests in Russia demanding Alexei Navalny’s release

Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the wave of nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin.

The authorities mounted a massive effort to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands of people rallied across the country the previous weekend in the largest and most widespread show of discontent the country has seen in years.

Police so far have detained more than 400 participants in protests held in many cities across Russia’s 11 time zones, according to the OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests.

In the far eastern port of Vladivostok alone, more than 100 people were detained after protesters danced on the ice and rallied in the city centre.

The city of Novosibirsk in eastern Siberia saw one of the biggest rallies, with thousands marching across the city chanting “Putin, thief!”

More than 50 were detained.

The chants referred to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for Russian President Vladimir Putin that Mr Navalny’s team have released a popular video about.

In Moscow, authorities introduced unprecedented security measures in the city centre, closing several subway stations near the Kremlin, cutting bus traffic and ordering restaurants and shops to stay closed.

Mr Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is the best-known critic of Mr Putin, was arrested on January 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.

Mr Navalny’s team initially called for Sunday’s protest to be held in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, home to the main headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which the 44-year-old claims was responsible for his poisoning.

After police cordoned off the area around the square, protest organisers urged demonstrators to gather at another central square a mile away.

Police showed up in force at that location too, detaining some protesters and putting them into buses.

As part of a multipronged effort by the authorities to block the protests, courts have jailed Mr Navalny’s associates and activists across the country.

His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put under two-month house arrest on Friday on charges of alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.

Prosecutors also demanded that social platforms block the calls for joining the protests on the internet.

The Interior Ministry has issued stern warnings to the public not to join the protests, saying participants could be charged with taking part in mass riots, which carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.

Those engaging in violence against police could face up to 15 years.

Nearly 4,000 people were reportedly detained at demonstrations on January 23 calling for Mr Navalny’s release which took place in more than 100 Russian cities, and some were given fines and jail terms.

About 20 were accused of assaulting police and faced criminal charges.

Just after Mr Navalny’s arrest, his team released a two-hour video on his YouTube channel about an opulent Black Sea residence purportedly built for Mr Putin.

The video has been viewed more than 100 million times, helping fuel discontent and inspiring a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet.

Mr Putin has said that neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property, and on Saturday construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime Putin confidant and his occasional judo sparring partner, claimed he owned the property.

Russia has seen extensive corruption during Mr Putin’s time in office even as many ordinary citizens struggle financially.

Mr Navalny fell into a coma on August 20 while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow.

He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities have refused to open a fully

Russian authorities have refused to open a fully fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that he was poisoned.

When he returned to Russia in January, Mr Navalny was jailed for 30 days after Russia’s prison service alleged he had violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction that he has rejected as political revenge.

On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected his appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his three-and-a-half year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.

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