MOSCOW (Reuters) – Police detained more than 350 people across Russia on Saturday and broke up rallies around the country as protesters defied bitter cold and a ban by authorities to demand the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Moscow for the first time since being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August. Navalny had been treated in Germany.
In central Moscow, police detained at least 100 people before the protest had even begun, bundling them into nearby vans. Around 1,000 people had gathered before the rally was due to start at 1100 GMT.
Some chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Disgrace” as police swept people off the streets.
Video footage from Vladivostok showed riot police chasing a group of protesters down the street, while demonstrators in Khabarovsk, braving temperatures of around -14 Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit), chanted “Bandits!”
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world where the temperature was -52 Celsius on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage from the scene showed.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 369 people, including 67 in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, had been detained so far.
It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 40 towns and cities. Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said the scale and sweep of the protests in the regions was unusual.
“Everyone must be really fed up with the stealing and lies if the regions have risen up like this without waiting for Moscow. Hundreds and thousands even in small cities,” he wrote on Twitter.
Authorities have said the protests are illegal because they had not been properly authorised. Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days earlier this week for alleged parole violations.
There was no comment on the protests from the Kremlin on Saturday.
Mobile phone and internet services suffered outages on Saturday, the monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves and share video footage online.
Navalny, an ex-lawyer who has accused Putin of ordering his murder, could face years in jail over legal cases that he calls trumped up. Putin has denied involvement in the poisoning.
Navalny’s supporters are hoping they can produce a show of anti-Kremlin street support despite winter conditions and the coronavirus pandemic to pressure the authorities into freeing him.
The West has told Moscow to let him go, sparking new tensions in already strained Russia ties as U.S. President Joe Biden launches his administration.
In a push to galvanise support ahead of the protests, Navalny’s team released a video about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 65 million times.
Police cracked down in the run-up to the rallies, rounding up several of Navalny’s allies they accused of calling for illegal protests and jailing at least two of them, including Navalny’s spokeswoman, for more than a week each.
Authorities also announced a criminal investigation against Navalny supporters over calls urging minors to attend illegal rallies that it said were made on various social networks.
Navalny’s allies hope to tap into what polls say are pent-up frustrations among the public over years of falling wages and economic fallout from the pandemic. But Putin’s grip on power looks unassailable and the 68-year-old president regularly records an approval rating of over 60%, much higher than that of Navalny.
Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova, Maria Tsvetkova, Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry