Riot police broke up protests across Russia on Sunday in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, detaining more than 4,500 people who had braved the bitter cold and the threat of prosecution to demand he be set free.
In a massive show of force, police imposed a sweeping security lockdown in the heart of Moscow, sealing off streets to pedestrians near the Kremlin, closing metro stations and deploying hundreds of riot police as snow fell.
At one point, a column of protesters marched towards the prison in northern Moscow where Navalny is being held, chanting “Let him go!”. In another scene, a crowd raised its hands above its heads in front of a row of riot police and chanted “we’re not your enemies”.
Navalny, 44, was arrested on Jan. 17 after returning to Moscow from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning in Russia last summer. He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies.
His dramatic return to Moscow despite the obvious threat of arrest and the second straight weekend of protests at his jailing pose a challenge for Putin who has dominated the Russian political landscape for over two decades.
Yulia, a 40-year-old protester in Moscow, said she had joined the rallies despite having a panic attack the night before because of worrying about repercussions for taking part.
“I understand that I live in a totally lawless state. In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently,” she said.
Police said protesters could face criminal prosecution for attending or calling for an unauthorised demonstration and warned they could spread COVID-19.
Navalny’s allies used social media to repeatedly change the location of their rally, scattering the crowds over different parts of Moscow and making it harder to disperse.