More than 5,600 demonstrators were arrested in anti-government protests that pose a major challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(CN) — For the second weekend in a row, Russia was jarred by large-scale protests sparked by the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and anger over government corruption.
By Monday, OVD-Info, a Russian human rights group, reported 5,646 protesters had been detained across Russia during protests on Sunday in subzero temperatures. The previous weekend saw more than 4,000 detentions of protesters, OVD-Info said. The group called the wave of detentions unprecedented.
Russian riot police were seen in videos treating protesters harshly. One video showed police brutally pushing a protester’s head into a sidewalk while he was handcuffed; in another video, a man is seen getting shocked several times with a stun gun on his way to a police bus; in yet another video, a police officer was seen drawing his handgun after protesters pushed and kicked at him. OVD-Info said it received reports of police beating 51 protesters.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities are stepping up the repression of Navalny and his associates. The 44-year-old anti-corruption investigator and opposition leader ignited the unrest by returning to Russia on Jan. 17 following his treatment in Germany from alleged poisoning by Russian agents with a Soviet-era nerve agent. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
Navalny was arrested for missing parole hearings during his treatment in Germany in relation to a suspended sentence for an embezzlement conviction deemed bogus by many.
On Monday, Russian prosecutors said they supported converting his suspended sentenced for jail time. He faces up to 3 ½ years in prison. On Tuesday, a court will hear arguments on whether he should be sent to prison.
Navalny’s poisoning and arrest have been strongly denounced by American and European leaders and they are considering new sanctions and other forms of retaliation against Russia, including the possible cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a controversial new pipeline under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany. The project is nearly completed.
Russian authorities are cracking down on Navalny’s team too. On Monday, a court in Moscow fined Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, about $265 for taking part in the rallies, which were not authorized by authorities. On Sunday, she was snatched away from the protests in Moscow by riot police.
Also, Russia’s Investigative Committee on Monday asked a Moscow court to place Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, under house arrest until March 23. The committee accused her of violating measures to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus by calling on people to protest. She has been in jail since she was detained on Jan. 21.
Navalny’s brother, Oleg Navalny, Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with his Anti-Corruption Foundation, and Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of his Moscow headquarters, are already under house arrest until March 23 on similar charges.
After the mass protests last weekend, another detained lawyer working for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Vladlen Los, said he was forcibly taken to Belarus, where he is a citizen. He described being taken out of Russia in handcuffs with a bag over his head by people in plain clothes, according to a video posted by Navalny’s team. He said he was told he could not return to Russia for five years.
Sunday’s arrests also included at least 93 journalists, according to OVD-Info. The group said police targeted journalists to keep them from reporting on the protests. The state-run media in Russia largely ignores the protests and avoids reporting on Navalny. Russian President Vladimir Putin has opted to never mention Navalny’s name.
On Monday, state-run media conspicuously downplayed the protests with Tass and RT, official Russian news agencies, barely mentioning them on their web sites. One Tass article, referring to a piece written by Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin newspaper, said the protests were “drawing fewer crowds” and becoming more violent and more “radicalized.”
It quoted Valery Fadeev, the chairman of Russia’s Human Rights Council, as saying that the rallies are part of “a movement to destroy the state, which is extremely dangerous” and “not about upholding rights and freedoms, this is not a struggle for a better life.”
Russia also accuses Western secret services of being behind the protests and supporting Navalny. In the Izvestia article, Vladimir Dzhabarov, a top deputy with the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, said “there is every reason to believe that Western intelligence services want to whip up unrest in Russia.”
Among the journalists arrested was Sergey Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of Mediazona, an online media outlet reporting on the protests. He was detained on the eve of the protests while on a walk with his young son, OVD-Info reported. He was released that evening after being charged with promoting protests on social media.
PEN America, an international group representing writers, called the arrests of journalists “a disgraceful pressure attack on the free press.”
“The arrest and detention of Smirnov and dozens of other journalists is an attempt to intimidate and silence Russia’s independent media during a moment of national upheaval,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia program director, in a statement. “The fervor of these protests has clearly alarmed Russian authorities, and perhaps rightly so; the number of people taking to the streets, many who have never done so before, demonstrates that resistance to oppression is still alive and well in Russia.”
Sadovskaya said attempts by the Putin regime to silence Navalny and others demanding change “exposes its own fear of those who report the truth.”
Amnesty International condemned the crackdown.
“Russian authorities have arrested so many people in recent weeks that detention centers in Moscow have run out of space, and peaceful protesters are being held in deportation facilities,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow director, in a statement. “Trying to lock up every critic in the country is a losing game – the Russian authorities should instead recognize how much the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression mean to a growing number of Russians, and allow people to express their opinions without fear of retaliation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the protesters “hooligans and provocateurs” and said the government would not enter into dialogue with them.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.