Police detained over 1,500 people and used force to break up rallies around Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters demanded the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose wife was among those detained.
Mr. Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was applied to his underpants by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s protests, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event. But protesters defied the ban and bitter cold, and turned out in force.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest rallies, police were seen detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up. The Foreign Ministry questioned Reuters’ crowd estimate, using sarcasm to suggest it was too high. “Why not just immediately say 4 million?,” it quipped on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
Mr. Navalny’s wife Yulia said on social media she had been detained at the rally. Mr. Navalny’s mother Ludmila was also at the protest. Some of Navalny’s allies were detained in the days before the protest.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 1,614 people, including 513 in Moscow and 212 in St Petersburg, had been detained across Russia. It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.