Arrest of poisoned Putin critic sparks protests in Russia

Russia protests
Protests took place across Russia, including St. Petersburg (pictured). Source: Bestalex (via. Wikimedia Commons)

By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor

Alexei Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia, five months after being poisoned with Novichok nerve agent.

Navalny, a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleges he was poisoned by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Although the Kremlin denies the allegation, investigative journalists have found evidence to support Navalny’s claims.

Navalny made the trip from Germany, where he had been recovering in hospital, on January 17. His detainment has sparked protests across the country.

Arrested upon arrival

The plane Navalny was to return on was diverted at short notice from Vnukova airport, where thousands had gathered in anticipation of Navalny’s return. It instead landed in Sheremetyevo airport, where police led Navalny away at passport control.

Footage shows Navalny kissing his wife before the police officers detained him. The police refused to allow his lawyer to come with him.

Back at Vnukovo, riot police were deployed, and a number of activists were reportedly arrested.

Navalny was given a makeshift hearing at a police station before being put away.

Russia’s prison service said Navalny “had been wanted since December 29 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period”.

The probation related to a suspended sentence handed to Navalny for embezzlement, a charge he claims was politically motivated to silence him.

Police said he was supposed to report to them regularly, though Navalny’s lawyer said it was “absurd”, saying they knew he was in Berlin, recovering from being poisoned.

In December 2020, investigative journalists uncovered three agents they said worked for Russia’s FSB, had been trailing him for years and had been at Tomsk at the time he was poisoned.

Later, Navalny himself convinced one agent he was a Russian official on the phone, and managed to uncover details of the operation, including that the poison was placed in the seam of Navalny’s underpants.

Russians take to the streets in support of Navalny

The day after his arrest, hundreds of people turned up outside Khimki police station, where Navalny was being held, in protest.

Among them was his councilor Antonia Stetsenko, who staged a solo picket outside the gates. The solo picket has become a way for Russian activists to circumvent laws against unauthorized gathering, with just one individual picketing at a time.

More than 70 people, including Navalny supporters as well as journalists, were reportedly detained.

In the coming days, nationwide protests began. In Khabarovsk, police were seen breaking up a demonstration of around 1,000 people.

Footage shows police attacking protesters in the city of Vladivostok.

Around a hundred cities and towns saw demonstrations take place, with a reported 40,000 protesters in Moscow, though the Russian interior ministry put the number at just 4,000.

Throughout the week, people with links to Navalny were arrested, including his brother, spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, lawyer Lyubov Sobol and his doctor Anastasia Vasiliyava, who played the piano in defiance as police raided her flat.

In an appeal against the thirty-day detention he was handed, Navalny described his detention as “blatantly illegal”. His appeal was rejected.

He said his treatment was a result of “those who want to shut me up – to scare me and everyone else.”

“You want to show you’re the bosses of this country. But you’re not. You have the power now, but that’s not eternal.”

A fresh wave of protests began on January 31, with many Russians taking to the streets for the first time as the movement gathered momentum. The protesters demand the release of Navalny, with many also calling for Putin to step down.

Over three thousand people have been detained, almost equaling the 4,000 detained the previous week. There have been reports of a lack of jail space for Navalny’s supporters.

Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those detained by police.

Metro stations and the city center of Moscow were closed off by police.

A number of clips show Russian police storming into crowds and taking protesters away.

The US said it “strongly condemns” the “harsh tactics” used against journalists and protesters by Russian police, and called for “the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny.”

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “The UK condemns the Russian authorities’ use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, pressed Raab in parliament on the concrete action he has taken against Russia, saying: “he can tweet all he likes, but those words will be met with nothing but derision in Moscow”

In particular Nandy suggested Raab had implemented none of the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report. Raab said the UK had taken action, pointing to the EU-led sanctions on six Russian officials.

Biden and Putin – a new relationship

The events in Russia come soon after the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.

The US has been criticised in the past for being soft on Russia, both under President Trump and Obama before him. Many are eager to see if President Biden will deliver on his commitment to be tough on Russia.

Biden has now had his first Presidential call with President Putin. The White House said they discussed election interference, as well as the ongoing protests.

 A Kremlin statement called the meeting “businesslike and frank”. The US said:

“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”

Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.

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