Several allies and supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained in Moscow early Thursday after mass protests last Saturday demanding his release from prison drew tens of thousands to the streets in over 100 Russian cities.
Navalny’s top ally Lyubov Sobol, Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva from the Alliance of Doctors union backed by Navalny, and Maria Alyokhina from the Pussy Riot punk collective have been detained for 48 hours along with Navalny’s brother Oleg.
All four are reported to be suspects in a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during the mass rally in Moscow. The raids came four days before new protests that Navalny’s supporters have called for Sunday.
The 44-year-old Navalny, the most well-known critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.
The overnight detentions of his supporters came after more than a dozen raids on apartments and offices of Navalny’s family, associates and supporters in connection to the probe. Searched locations included Navalny’s apartment, where police detained his brother, and a rented apartment where Navalny’s wife, Yulia, has been living.
Also Thursday, Russia’s Investigative Committee said it opened a criminal probe against Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov, accusing him of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized rallies.
In a further challenge to Putin, two days after Navalny’s arrest, his organization released an extensive video report on a palatial seaside compound allegedly built for Putin. It has been viewed over 98 million times, further stoking discontent.
Demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release took place in more than 100 cities across the nation last Saturday, a strong show of rising anger toward the Kremlin. Nearly 4,000 people were reported arrested at those protests.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Navalny’s arrest and the harsh police actions at the protests have brought wide criticism from the West and calls for his release.