More than 1,000 people have been detained at widespread protests across Russia demanding he release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
According to OVD-Info, a Moscow-based group monitoring politically-motivated arrests, 1,090 people were detained by police on Saturday as some 40,000 protesters headed onto the streets of the Russian capital, with other demonstrations taking place across the country.
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world where the temperature was -52C on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage from the scene showed.
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.
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!”
OVD-Info 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 Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder, could face years in jail over legal cases that he says have been exaggerated. Putin has denied involvement in the poisoning.
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional release”.
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.
Some western countries have already told Moscow to let him go, sparking new tensions in the already-strained relationship between Russia and the US as 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.