Police have detained more than 3000 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was slipped to him by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s demonstrations, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event.
But protesters defied the ban and, in at least one case in temperatures below minus 50C, turned out in force. Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called “the clutches of his killers”.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated up to 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4000 people had shown up, while the foreign ministry questioned Reuters crowd estimate.
“Why not just immediately say four million?” it suggested sarcastically on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally, put turnout in the capital at 50,000, the Proekt media outlet reported.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
Navalny’s wife Yulia was briefly detained at the rally before being released.
Some of Navalny’s political allies were detained in the days before the protest, others on the day itself.
The United States condemned what it described as “harsh tactics” used against protesters and journalists and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up.
He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a US-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
Some protesters marched on the prison, where police were waiting to arrest them.
Images of protesters with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.
The scenes were reminiscent of the months-long unrest in Russia’s neighbouring ally Belarus where anti-government protests flared last August over allegations of voter fraud.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously called the protests illegal and the work of “provocateurs”.