A Russian court has rejected opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s appeal against his arrest, while authorities have arrested several of his allies and issued warnings to social media companies.
Thursday’s developments came after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of more than 100 Russian cities over the weekend to demand his release.
Addressing the court via a video link from prison, Navalny denounced criminal charges against him as part of the government’s efforts to intimidate the opposition.
“You will not succeed in scaring the tens of millions of people who have been robbed by this government,” he said.
His lawyers said Navalny would appeal the decision to keep him in detention, the Interfax news agency reported.
After the decision was made, Navalny told the judge: “Everything was clear to me before the hearing started, thank you.
Navalny, 44, the best-known critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government, was arrested on January 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve poisoning he attributes in the Kremlin. Russian authorities have dismissed the charges.
Navalny was jailed for 30 days at the behest of the Russian prison services, which accused of violating the probation conditions of a suspended sentence on a money laundering conviction in 2014, which he dismissed as politically motivated.
He now also faces charges in two separate criminal investigations.
The Moscow regional court on Thursday dismissed his appeal against the arrest.
Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Godfroid, who reports from Moscow, said Navalny took the opportunity to speak at Thursday’s hearing to deliver a “political speech” aimed at boosting the morale of his supporters.
“In essence, he said he was not surprised by the lack of law,” she said. “He also said that the whole idea behind it [process] is to scare him, his supporters and anyone who opposes it.
Navalny’s brother arrested
During the hearing, Navalny’s defense argued that he was undergoing rehabilitation in Germany and therefore could not register with the authorities as required by the conditions of probation during the period. His lawyers also challenged his arrest, alleging that due process had been repeatedly violated.
The detention of Navalny Oleg’s brother, his main ally Lyubov Sobol, Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva of the Navalny-backed Doctors Alliance and Maria Alyokhina of the punk collective Pussy Riot comes as authorities attempt to stem another wave of events scheduled for Sunday.
All four were held for 48 hours as part of a criminal investigation into alleged coronavirus regulatory violations during the weekend protests.
The nightly detentions of Navalny’s allies came after more than a dozen searches of apartments and offices of his family, associates and supporters as part of the ongoing investigation into violations of restrictions on coronavirus during the weekend protests. Those sites included Navalny’s apartment, where police arrested his brother, and a rented apartment where Navalny’s wife, Yulia, lived.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the searches and detentions were a legitimate part of police efforts to investigate alleged violations at Saturday’s rallies.
“The police are doing their job,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters. “There have been many violations of Russian laws and the police are at work.”
Russian prosecutors also issued warnings to Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok and Russian social networks on Thursday asking them to block calls for more protests.
“The state does not want social networks to become a platform to promote such illegal actions,” Peskov said.
When asked if their refusal to remove this content could prompt Russian authorities to block them, Peskov replied that it would be up to the relevant government agencies to consider a response.
“All the advantages and disadvantages will be weighed and, if necessary, the measures provided for by law will be taken,” he said.
Earlier this week, Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said he would condemn Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and two Russian social networks for failing to block calls by minors to join the protests of Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Godfroid said the Kremlin was moving quickly to try to cancel further protests against Navalny’s detention, warning that such protests would be illegal.
“The authorities are not sitting idly by, they have already started warning that January 31 is not a date for people to join these rallies,” she said.
“They have also started warning the [media] networks, telling them to remove any content calling on people to join Sunday’s protests. “
Also on Thursday, the Russian investigative committee said it had opened a criminal investigation against Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov, accusing him of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized gatherings. Volkov, who is currently staying abroad, has dismissed the charges.
In a challenge to Putin two days after Navalny’s arrest, his organization released a full video report on a lavish resort that was allegedly built for the president. It has been viewed over 98 million times, further fueling the discontent.
Protests calling for Navalny’s release took place in more than 100 cities across the country last Saturday, a strong manifestation of mounting anger at the Kremlin. Almost 4,000 people were reportedly arrested during the protests, and some received fines and prison terms.
Navalny fell into a coma while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a hospital in Berlin two days later.
Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, as well as tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he had been exposed to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
Russian authorities have refused to open a full criminal investigation, citing the lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Navalny’s arrest and harsh police actions during the protests drew sharp criticism from the West and calls for his release.
Some analysts have said Navalny will seek to make the most of the apparent surge in anti-Kremlin sentiment caused by his detention.
“What Alexey Navalny wants to do now is prepare for a situation where he … can become a real contender for power,” said Alexander Baunov, senior member of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank.