Russian prosecutors on Monday backed a request to detain opposition leader Alexei Navalny for several years on old charges, after police detained a record number of anti-Kremlin protesters across the country.
On Sunday, protesters defied government warnings and gathered across the country – including in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where authorities enforced unprecedented lockdown of the center – in a second weekend of mass protests over the arrest of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponents.
The protests – which stretched from the port of Vladivostok in the Pacific region to the northwestern city of Pskov – came before an attentive court hearing that could see Navalny imprisoned for several years.
Navalny’s detention and violence against protesters have sparked outcry in the West.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is expected to press the Kremlin to liberate Navalny when he goes to Moscow on Thursday.
Navalny, 44, faces charges of violating the terms of a late 2014 embezzlement sentence and could be jailed for two and a half years.
The public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Monday that it supported a request from the prison service to change the temporary sentence to prison.
“This movement is considered legal and justified,” the statement said.
Navalny was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-January after flying back to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from poisoning in August.
He blames the attack by nerve agent Novichok on Putin and the FSB’s security bureau.
Batons and tasers
The campaign against corruption is being held in a high-security detention center and faces years in prison in several different criminal cases, despite calls by Western governments for his release.
Navalny’s team has called on his supporters to gather in front of Moscow’s district court on Tuesday to show support for opposition politicians.
In recent years, Navalny has served a number of short prison terms but never a long prison term.
On Sunday, thousands of people gathered across Russia to demand freedom for Navalny and changes to Russia’s tightly controlled political system.
OVD Info, which monitors the arrest of opposition protesters, said more than 5,400 people had been detained – a record in the history of modern Russia.
Ahead of Sunday’s demonstration, authorities locked down the capital, with hundreds of police along the streets, central metro stations closed and restrictions on pedestrian traffic.
Protesters and monitors pointed to increasingly harsh police tactics, saying they used batons and tasers on peaceful protesters and that some were beaten.
In St. Petersburg, a police officer was seen aiming his service weapon at the protesters, while the police in Vladivostok used non-lethal weapons against a demonstrator, according to OVD Info.
“Political repression is increasing,” Leonid Drabkin, chief OVD information coordinator, told AFP.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday defended the shutdown.
“We are talking about illegal meetings,” he told reporters. “Of course, the police are taking action against the participants in these illegal gatherings – hence the number detained.”
“Road to problems”
But the St. Petersburg ombudsman said authorities were launching “essentially a military operation” against protesters and paralyzed the city.
“Batons and tasers will not solve existing problems. Violence only breeds impatience and bitterness,” Ombudsman Alexander Shishlov said in a statement.
“This is a path to big problems. It’s time to stop.”
Kremlin critics say a concerted effort is underway to silence Navalny’s team, dismantle his Anti-Corruption Foundation and pressure his family.
On Monday, a court fined Navalny’s wife Yulia 20,000 rubles ($ 265) for participating in an “unauthorized” demonstration in support of her husband.
Before Sunday’s demonstrations, Navalny’s brother Oleg and several key allies, including prominent activist Lyubov Sobol, were placed under house arrest until March 23 for allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions and urging people to join protests.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Twitter condemned “the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week in a row”.
On Monday, France called on Germany to scrap the Nordstream II gas pipeline project with Russia in protest of Navalny’s detention.