Supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny are bracing for yet another round of anti-government protests on Sunday, despite a police crackdown on the Russian opposition and strong warnings against participating in the protests.
Navalny’s aides have called for new nationwide rallies to demand the release of the opposition leader from the prison where he awaits his trial, which is scheduled to begin on February 2.
The 44-year-old was arrested on January 17 after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent. His detention sparked nationwide protests in around 100 cities last week. Almost 4,000 people were reportedly arrested.
Sunday’s rally in Moscow is due to take place outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s main security agency, which Navalny says carried out the near-fatal poisoning attack on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
In an unprecedented move, police in the capital announced the closure of seven metro stations and said pedestrian traffic would be limited in the city center.
Authorities in Moscow have also said some restaurants and shops in the center will close and air transport will be hijacked.
Irina Volk, spokeswoman for the Russian Interior Ministry, cited the coronavirus pandemic in a warning on Saturday against the protests. She said participants found in violation of epidemiological regulations could face criminal prosecution.
“Units of the Russian Interior Ministry and other law enforcement agencies will use all necessary measures to ensure public order at the sites of mass events. In addition, we warn that any violent action against officers or refusal to obey their legal orders will be avoided, ”she said.
“Those who commit such unlawful actions will be detained and held accountable according to the law.”
Brother Navalny, lawyer arrested
Protests in support of Navalny last week were the largest and most widespread in Russia for many years, and authorities have sought to prevent a repeat. Police carried out a series of raids this week on the apartments and offices of Navalny’s family, associates and the anti-corruption organization.
His brother Oleg, his senior assistant Lyubov Sobol and three others were placed under house arrest on Friday, as part of a criminal investigation into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during protests over the weekend.
Sergei Smirnov, editor of the Mediazona news site founded by members of the punk collective Pussy Riot, was arrested by police when leaving his home on Saturday.
The independent online outlet said Smirnov was suspected of participating in a protest in Moscow last weekend, while the RIA news agency said he was facing a hearing on February 3. He could face 30 days in prison or a fine of up to 300,000 rubles or forced labor.
Authorities are also targeting online platforms, demanding they remove posts with calls for rallies or face fines. The country’s media watchdog said on Friday it had summoned representatives from several social networks, including Facebook and TikTok, not to comply.
In a jail post on Thursday, Navalny urged the Russians to hold more rallies.
“The majority are on our side. Let’s wake them up, ”he wrote from Matrosskaya Tishina, a high security detention center.
Navalny was remanded in custody on the grounds that his months of convalescence in Germany violated the terms of a suspended sentence he received on a 2014 conviction for fraud and money laundering, a case that he called it political revenge.
Russian authorities have also launched investigations against Navalny’s associates in Russia and abroad.
The investigative committee said on Friday that Leonid Volkov, head of the Navalny regional network and based in Lithuania, was wanted for calling on minors to join unauthorized gatherings.
On Saturday, investigators launched a fraud investigation into Ukrainian businessman Alexander Khomenko who they say funded the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, which publishes wealth surveys of Russian political elites.
Black Sea Palace
His most recent video report that Putin was offered a $ 1.35 billion property on the Black Sea coast garnered over 100 million views on YouTube, becoming the most-watched survey of Navalny.
The Kremlin has denied that the Russian president owns the opulent complex, which Navalny says includes an underground ice hockey arena, private casino and vineyards.
State television on Friday sought to rebut opposition claims that the Black Sea property was a luxurious palace by showing footage under construction.
Billionaire Arkady Rotenberg – Putin’s former judo partner – said on Saturday that he was the owner of the establishment and that he was building a hotel there.
“Now it will no longer be a secret, I am the beneficiary,” Rotenberg said in a video posted by the Mash Telegram channel. “There was a rather complicated facility, there were a lot of creditors and I managed to become the beneficiary.”
He gave no further financial details about the purchase or how it was funded.
Rotenberg was among Russian officials and business executives blacklisted by the United States and other Western powers following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.