Russians join protests against jailing of Kremlin critic Navalny despite crackdown

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MOSCOW –  Supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets in Siberia and the Russian Far East on Sunday (Jan 31)  for a second straight weekend despite a sweeping crackdown on his allies and warnings from the police.

Rallies are also planned in Moscow later on Sunday, part of a campaign to win the release of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent.

He was arrested on Jan 17 after returning from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning in Russia last summer.

Police have said the protests have not been authorised and will be broken up as they were last weekend.

OVD-Info, a protest monitoring group, said that more than 4,000 people were at the rallies last week.

In the far eastern city of Vladivostok, where a rally began at 0200 GMT (10am Singapore time), police prevented protesters from accessing the centre, forcing them to relocate to the waterfront and the frozen waters of the Amur Bay.

Video footage showed protesters chanting “Putin is a thief” as they linked hands and marched on the ice in temperatures of around -13 degrees Celsius.  In Tomsk, the Siberian city that Navalny visited before suddenly collapsing on a domestic flight last August, demonstrators gathered in front of a concert hall and chanted “Let him go!” and held up Russian flags.

OVD-Info said police had detained 145 people, including 76 in Vladivostok, since the rallies began.

Navalny’s supporters in Moscow plan to gather at 0900 GMT (5pm Singapore time) near the Kremlin administration and the headquarters of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, where protesters in 1991 famously pulled down a statue of the police’s founder during the Soviet breakup.

Authorities have closed seven metro stations in the Russian capital and have said they will restrict pedestrian movement in the area due to the protest plans.

There was a heavy police presence in central Moscow early on Sunday.

Navalny, 44, accuses Mr Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies.

Navalny is accused of parole violations which he says are trumped up. A court is due to meet next week to consider handing him a jail term of up to 3½ years.

The protests following Navalny’s dramatic return to Moscow despite the threat of arrest put Mr Putin in a quandary over how to respond. show pent-up frustrations among Russians over years of falling wages and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The West has told Moscow to let Navalny go and his allies have appealed to United States President Joe Biden to sanction 35 people who they say are Mr Putin’s close allies.

To galvanise support at home, in an online video viewed over 100 million times, Navalny accused Mr Putin of being the ultimate owner of a sumptuous Black Sea palace, something the Kremlin leader has denied.

On the eve of the protests, Mr Arkady Rotenberg, a businessman and Mr Putin’s former judo sparring partner, said he owns the property.

Police have warned that Sunday’s protests have not been authorised and will be considered illegal and broken up as they were last weekend. They have also said demonstrators could spread Covid-19.

Officers detained more than 4,000 people at last weekend’s rallies, according to a protest monitoring group. Protesters in one city turned out in temperatures of minus 52 deg C.

In Moscow, police appeared to struggle to find enough jail space. One protester said authorities found him a cell only late last Wednesday despite arresting him four days earlier.

Many of Navalny’s prominent allies were targeted in a crackdown this week. Several, including his brother Oleg, are under house arrest.

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