MOSCOW: On Thursday, Russian authorities arrested a top aide of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and warned social media sites against circulating online demands for weekend demonstrations.
Navalny’s supporters intend to organise protests on Saturday in about 65 cities across the country in favour of the Kremlin critic who was arrested and jailed over the weekend on his return to Russia.
On Sunday, Navalny, 44, returned from Germany to Russia, where he was suffering from a near-fatal Novichok nerve agent poisoning in an attack he blamed on Russia’s intelligence services and President Vladimir Putin.
With the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all pressing for his freedom, his detention attracted universal Western criticism.
During the coronavirus pandemic, prosecutors cautioned Russians against taking to the streets and police arrested popular activist Lyubov Sobol, a key associate of Navalny, on Thursday.
Her prosecutor, Vladimir Voronin, said, “She was detained for calling on people to join unsanctioned rallies.”
Sobol, who is a lawyer by profession, is facing a fine, he said.
Vladlen Los, who is a resident of Belarus, another lawyer with Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation, said he had been told to leave Russia.
Prosecutors cautioned Russians against holding “illegal mass demonstrations” and requested a ban on websites supporting demonstrations on Saturday.
“In a statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office said, “Law enforcement authorities were directed to take protective steps and disciplinary action against violators.
For its part, state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor warned social media outlets against recruiting children to take part in the rallies.
Administrative action against internet sites will be taken,” the watchdog said, adding that failure to remove “banned content” could result in fines of up to 4 million rubles ($54,000). Failure to remove “banned information
On Monday, a hastily arranged hearing ordered Navalny to be detained for 30 days and his aides fear that many outstanding lawsuits against him are a reason to grant him a lengthy jail sentence.
Navalny’s allies issued a probe into an opulent Black Sea property supposedly owned by Putin after he was placed behind bars, amid a fund-raising call to help further inquiries.
Kira Yarmysh, spokeswoman for Navalny, said on Thursday that his team has since obtained donations of 10 million rubles ($136,000).
After its publication on Tuesday, the two-hour video article has been viewed more than 44 million times, becoming the Kremlin critic’s most-watched YouTube investigation.
Calls in Navalny support
In solidarity of the jailed opposition activist, a number of public personalities, including celebrities, singers and athletes, have spoken out in recent days.
Igor Denisov, the former captain of Russia’s national football team, said Thursday that although he was never involved in politics, “Navalny should be released.”
“Denisov said he had “much regard” for Navalny in a video message on the sports.ru website, an unprecedented move for Russian athletes who normally toe the Kremlin line.
In recent years, Navalny has conducted a series of inquiries into the suspected riches of Putin’s allies, but Tuesday’s article was the first time a long exposure has criticised the Russian president.