MOSCOW: Police detain a man during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow yesterday. - AFP

MOSCOW: Police detained hundreds of people across Russia and blocked off the center of Moscow yesterday in a massive clampdown on protests demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. From Vladivostok in the Far East to Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, thousands of police in riot gear were deployed to prevent a second weekend of mass demonstrations over the arrest of President Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent. Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-January after flying back to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from an August poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.

The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner is being held in a Moscow detention centre and facing years of potential jail time in several different criminal cases, despite calls from Western governments for his release. In moves not seen in years in Moscow, police locked down the center of the capital on Sunday, with hundreds lining the streets, central Metro stations closed and the movements of pedestrians restricted.

Protesters who had hoped to gather outside the headquarters of the FSB security service were instead scattered to various parts of the city as organizers made last-minute changes in locations. AFP journalists saw dozens of protesters detained and forced into police vans. It was unclear amid the chaos how many people were taking part.

'People are outraged'

Independent monitor OVD-Info said more than 1,500 people had so far been detained across the country, including more than 300 in Moscow. It reported more than 4,000 detentions during last weekend's protests. Hundreds were marching through the city centre chanting "Freedom!" and "Putin is a thief!" as they headed towards the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny was being held.

Police followed the protesters, breaking up the crowds and playing pre-recorded messages on loudspeakers warning that the gathering was illegal because of coronavirus restrictions. "The people in power don't want to listen to anything or to anybody," 34-year-old vet Darya said at the Moscow rally. In the second city of Saint Petersburg police closed off the main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt, closed Metro stations and police cars were parked all across the center, an AFP journalist reported.

"The whole center is cordoned off," said Natalya Grigoryeva, who came to the Saint Petersburg rally with her daughter. "And who is this all against, against their own people?" Earlier protesters had rallied in cities including the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where several dozen gathered in a central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally.

Several thousand were also reported to have protested in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk despite temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit). This week several Navalny associates, including lawyer Lyubov Sobol and his brother Oleg, were placed under house arrest until late March pending charges for violating coronavirus restrictions by calling people to join protests.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh was detained late Saturday also over violating virus measures, the same day she was due to walk free after a nine-day jail term for violating protest laws. In a continued effort to clamp down on online platforms used to coordinate the rallies, Russia's media watchdog yesterday ordered social networks to block posts with "false" information about the protests, including those "over-estimating" numbers of participants.

US condemns clampdown

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday condemned Russian authorities for their "harsh" response to protests across the country that called for the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. "The US condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight," Blinken said on his official Twitter account. "We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights," he added, after Russian police detained more than 1,000 people, including 142 in Moscow.

Authorities have ramped up pressure on the opposition with arrests and criminal probes, including several Navalny aides. A second weekend of protests began in several cities Sunday including Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok in the Far East, where several dozen gathered in a central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally. - AFP