According to a monitoring organization, Russian police detained nearly 1,800 demonstrators on Wednesday as supporters of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny took to the streets in dozens of cities across the country to engage in protests fuelled by news of his deteriorating health in prison.
Allies of President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic, who started a hunger strike three weeks ago over allegations of mistreatment by prison officials, believe he will die prematurely and have requested that he be given adequate medical care.
They called for massive protests across Russia’s vast territory as President Vladimir Putin delivered a state-of-the-nation address.
Navalny has been handled like any other inmate, according to officials, and the protests have been labeled illegal.
Protesters defied Russian authorities and gathered in nearly 100 towns and cities across the country, including the capital, Moscow, Vladivostok in the Far East, a number of cities in Siberia, and Vladimir, where Navalny is being kept in a penal colony.
According to the protest monitoring organization OVD-Info, police detained 1,791 people in connection with the protests. There were 806 arrests in St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest district, and 119 in Ufa, a city in the Urals.
Before the protests even started, dozens of people were arrested, including two top Navalny associates in Moscow.
‘The last gasps of a free Russia’
The majority of Wednesday’s demonstrations took place in the capital, with thousands of protesters marching through the city center.
Protesters shouted, “Freedom to Navalny!” and “Let the doctors in!” and were accompanied by Navalny’s wife Yulia.
“This is one of the last gasps of a free Russia, as many are saying,” said Marina, a student at the Moscow protest.
“We came out for Alexey … against a war in Ukraine and the wild propaganda,” she added, citing simmering tensions between the Kremlin and Kyiv.
According to OVD-Info, police detained 30 people for participating in the protest. The exact number of people who attended the Moscow rally, however, varied greatly.
According to police, 6,000 people participated, but Navalny’s YouTube channel claims that attendance in the capital was up to ten times higher.
The opposition had hoped that Wednesday’s rallies would be the largest in modern Russian history, and had framed them as an effort to save Navalny’s life by convincing authorities to allow his own doctors to treat him.
However, overall turnout in Russia appeared to be lower than during pro-Navalny demonstrations earlier this year, before the opposition leader was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for suspected parole violations of a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has dismissed as fabricated.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities and towns across Russia during that wave of protests, the country’s biggest display of civic opposition in years.
The Kremlin called the demonstrations unconstitutional, and police detained thousands of people who took part in them.
UN experts warn Navalny’s life in ‘serious danger’
Navalny’s case has gotten a lot of attention since he was arrested in January following his return to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin – an accusation officials have repeatedly denied.
His fate has become a flashpoint in Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West, which have been exacerbated further by economic sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and a Russian military buildup near Ukraine.
The US has warned Russia that if he dies, there will be “consequences.”
Meanwhile, UN human rights experts have urged Moscow to allow Navalny to be treated medically abroad, warning that his life is in “extreme danger” in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“We are deeply troubled that Mr. Navalny is being kept in conditions that could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in a facility that reportedly does not meet international standards,” the experts said.
Russia has dismissed foreign remarks as foreign meddling in its internal affairs.
Putin made no mention of Navalny in his speech on Wednesday, but he did warn the West not to cross Russia’s “red lines.”
“We want good relations … and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin said.
“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”