More than 1,000 people were arrested on Wednesday as supporters of ailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny defied the authorities to stage protests across Russia demanding he receive life-saving medical care.
By early evening, more than 1,000 people had been arrested in more than 80 cities, according to the OVD-Info protest monitoring group.
The group had earlier reported that more than 100 people were detained at protests in Siberia, which sits several time zones ahead of cities like Moscow and St Petersburg.
More than 300 people were arrested in St Petersburg, according to the monitor. « Putin is a murderer, » many of the protesters shouted there, according to online broadcaster Dozhd. The channel said the authorities had also used shock batons against the protesters.
The authorities warned people against taking part in unauthorized protests.
But in Moscow, ten thousand people demonstrated in support of Navalny in the city centre, according to observers, and cars honked their horns in support. The police placed the number at 6,000.
Many called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to resign, echoing calls in other cities across the country.
Many protesters said they had overcome their fear and wanted to support Navalny. They accused Putin of corruption and oppressing dissenters, and chanted ” Freedom! Freedom! “
Among them were Navalny’s wife Yulia, his brother Oleg and his mother Lyudmila.
Numerous metal barriers were erected not far from Moscow’s Red Square ahead of the rallies.
Nearby, not only were Navalny supporters planning to demonstrate in the evening, but Putin had also been scheduled to deliver his annual address to the nation in the afternoon.
The city of Moscow in warning against participation in the demonstrations, had said earlier it would take « all necessary measures » to ensure public order.
Videos from the Siberian city of Irkutsk showed a large crowd chanting « Freedom for Alexei Navalny » and calling for Putin to resign.
Navalny’s team has said the 44-year-old’s health is quickly deteriorating at the prison camp where he is being held.
Evening protests were planned in more than 200 Russian cities and towns to draw attention to his plight and clamour for prison authorities to allow him access to independent doctors.
The leading opposition figure, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt last year, has been complaining of severe back pain and paralysis in his arms and legs.
To protest a lack of medical care, he went on hunger strike about three weeks ago.
Earlier, the authorities in several Russian cities had sealed off city centres ahead of planned protests.
In the city of Yekaterinburg, the local administration announced the temporary closure of several streets on short notice, citing a night-time military exercise.
Ahead of the protests, several close associates of Navalny were detained on Wednesday.
His spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, was picked up by officers at the entrance of her Moscow home as she was about to leave the building, according to her lawyer.
Attorney Lyubov Sobol, also a confidant of Navalny, was dragged out of a cab by police officers and taken away, a lawyer representing Sobol said.
The crackdown began on Tuesday with reports of other members of Navalny’s team being detained at multiple locations.
At the beginning of the year, thousands of Navalny supporters across Russia were detained during similar protests, with the harsh approach by authorities heavily criticized internationally.