Police have detained more than 350 people across Russia and broke up rallies around the country as protesters defied bitter cold and a ban by authorities to demand the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Moscow for the first time since being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August. Navalny had been treated in Germany.
In central Moscow on Saturday, police detained at least 100 people before the protest had even begun, bundling them into nearby vans. About 1000 people had gathered before the rally was due to start in the early afternoon.
Some chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Disgrace” as police swept people off the streets.
Video footage from Vladivostok showed riot police chasing a group of protesters down the street, while demonstrators in Khabarovsk, braving temperatures of about -14C, chanted “Bandits!”
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world where the temperature was -52C on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage from the scene showed.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 369 people, including 67 in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, had been detained so far.
It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 40 towns and cities.
Authorities have said the protests are illegal because they had not been properly authorised. Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days earlier this week for alleged parole violations.
The Kremlin has not commented on the protests.
Mobile phone and internet services suffered outages on Saturday, the monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves and share video footage online.
Navalny, an ex-lawyer who has accused Putin of ordering his murder, could face years in jail over legal cases he calls trumped-up. Putin has denied involvement in the poisoning.
The West has told Moscow to let Navalny go, sparking new tensions in already strained Russia ties as US President Joe Biden launches his administration.
In a push to galvanise support before the protests, Navalny’s team released a video about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 65 million times.
Police cracked down in the run-up to the rallies, rounding up several of Navalny’s allies they accused of calling for illegal protests and jailing at least two of them, including Navalny’s spokeswoman, for more than a week each.
Authorities also announced a criminal investigation against Navalny supporters over calls urging minors to attend illegal rallies that it said were made on various social networks.