Russian police arrested more than 350 people participating in peaceful rallies in support of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny Saturday, in a violent response to nationwide protests that are expected to be the country’s largest in years.
Mr. Navanly, the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was jailed this week on his return from Germany where he was recovering from an assassination attempt, he said he was ordered by the Kremlin and called his supporters to organize rallies demanding his release.
Police arrested 369 people in 36 cities across the country by 11 a.m. GMT, according to OVD, an independent judicial watchdog, while riot police dressed in body armor and wielding batons surrounded the central plaza. of Moscow where the demonstrators had gathered.
Videos posted on social media showed six police officers with riot shields beating unarmed protesters with batons in Ekaterinbur, while in the city of Chelyabinsk, West Siberia, protesters were beaten to the ground and dragged by their backpacks on the frozen snow.
“I am fed up with all that. I am 19 years old, Putin has been in power all my life and I see no hope for the country, ”said Anastasia, a student at a Moscow state university. “There is poverty and state terrorism. And what they did to Navalny is outrageous and illegal.
In Moscow, protesters chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “Free Navalny!” while the passing cars sounded their horns in support. Even before the protest began, squads of up to 10 officers clashed with the crowds thronging the square and grabbed the protesters, seemingly at random, before stopping them, causing cries of “Disgrace! ” spectators.
Footage from the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where thousands of people had gathered, showed riot police chasing protesters on the street, as people braved temperatures below -30C to march in Siberian cities such as Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.
“I want Russia to be free. I support Navalny. I want a future for my children, ”said Svetlana, 60, retiree, attending the Moscow rally. “I really got it. Everything collapses. There is no health care and no pensions. I want things to change. “
Mr. Navanly’s team hopes that the scale of demonstrations, especially in cities in eastern and Siberia where anti-Kremlin activity is scarce, will pressure Mr. Putin’s administration to release him.
Mr Navalny was jailed for breaking the terms of a 2014 conditional sentence, which could see him jailed for three and a half years. He also faces a charge of fraud carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The Kremlin, which denies any role in the August nerve agent attack on Mr Navalny that nearly killed him, said the rallies were illegal. Police preventively stopped many of Mr Navanly’s closest associates this week to prevent them from attending rallies and have warned social media companies they will be prosecuted for failing to remove posts announcing the protests.
Moscow said so will ignore calls for condemnation of Western countries and their demands for Mr. Navalny’s release, describing him as a national problem.