Russian authorities stepped up pressure on jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny on Wednesday, as police raided his apartment and offices, as well as those of his allies and took his brother into police custody before new protests for his release this weekend.
The 44-year-old, who nearly died after being poisoned last year, was jailed for violating parole conditions when he returned home last week after life-saving treatment in Germany.
Authorities say Wednesday’s raids are part of a criminal investigation into violations of coronavirus restrictions during protests last weekend when tens of thousands took to the streets to demand Navalny’s release.
Police said the protests were illegal and OVD-Info, a watchdog group, said nearly 4,000 protesters were arrested. Other gatherings are expected on Saturday.
Ivan Zhdanov, head of the FBK Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, said police searched apartments linked to Navalny as well as the organization’s offices for alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions. Russia’s Interior Ministry said earlier on Wednesday it had opened a criminal investigation into violations of COVID-19 rules during the protests.
Navalny, whose foundation is known for investigating allegations of corruption within Russia’s political elite, has become the main opponent of President Vladimir Putin.
His most recent report – a nearly two-hour video posted on YouTube – claimed Putin received a $ 1.5 billion palace on the Black Sea coast as a gift; an allegation rejected by the President. The film, released after Navalny’s detention, has been viewed approximately 97 million times.
Zhdanov tweeted that Oleg Navalny, who was released from jail in 2018 after serving three and a half years on an embezzlement conviction which critics said was aimed at putting pressure on the opposition figure and stamping out dissent, was in his brother’s apartment. during the search.
Zhdanov said police appeared to be conducting the raids as part of an investigation into calls for more protests, which violated social distancing restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They started to break down the door,” he tweeted.
Speaking in Washington, DC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the United States’ concern over Navalny’s treatment and the human rights situation in Russia.
“I remain struck at how concerned and perhaps even frightened the Russian government seems about one man, Mr. Navalny,” Blinken said. “Her voice is the voice of many, many, many Russians, and it should be heard, not muzzled.
Blinken’s remarks come a day after the Group of Seven Industrial Democracies jointly called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday described the declaration as “blatant interference” in the country’s internal affairs and “not openly hostile”.
Zhdanov later said police arrested Ilya Pakhomov, an aide to Navalny, outside the opposition politician’s apartment.
Zhdanov also posted a video taken in another apartment showing Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, telling police to wait for her lawyer to arrive as they knocked loudly on the door.
Navalnaya’s lawyer Veronika Polyakova was allowed into the apartment by the police after standing in front of the door for several hours.
“Previously, touching the family was against the code of honor,” Polyakova tweeted. “Now there is no code, no honor.”
Police also raided the home of Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally who was arrested during protests last week, Navalny’s allies said.
Police took Sobol for questioning as a witness, but she was later ordered to remain in custody for 48 hours, also for allegedly violating health rules, Navalny’s team said.