Russian police have detained supporters of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny and warned of more arrests if calls for protest marches on Saturday are circulated, as Moscow demanded social media companies delete posts about the rallies.
Alexander Gorovoi, Russia’s first deputy interior minister, said police were preparing to ensure public order “the day of unsanctioned events across the country, plans for which have been announced by certain quasi-politicians”.
“We have every legal ground to hold administratively liable everyone who makes such calls in person, on the internet, or via written messages before the event actually happens,” he said, in remarks published by state news agencies on Thursday.
Police detained two of Mr Navalny’s aides and raided the homes and offices of many of his key aides, a move that echoed Russia’s approach to mass protests in the summer of 2019 which ended with police violence against participants and mass arrests.
The crackdown came as German chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her demand that Russia “urgently” release Mr Navalny, president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, and Finnish president Sauli Niinistö used a telephone call with Mr Putin to warn him of the “implications” for relations with Europe.
Mr Navalny was detained on Sunday night after landing in Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from an assassination attempt using a nerve agent that he and a host of western countries blame on the Kremlin.
He was sent to jail for 30 days on Monday after Russia’s prison service accused him breaching the terms of a suspended sentence, a charge that could see him locked up for more than three years.
The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner and political organiser has called for marches protesting his incarceration to take place across Russia, which the Kremlin says is illegal.
Russian law requires organisers of public events involving mass gatherings to apply for a permit from local authorities. Mr Putin signed a repressive slate of new laws late last year that include lengthy jail sentences for protesters who block public thoroughfares.
Mr Navalny’s team has called for protests to take place in cities all across the country regardless of rejected applications.
Vladlen Los, a Belarusian lawyer for his foundation, was taken to a police station and ordered to leave the country for more than two years, he said, while Lyubov Sobol, one of Mr Navalny’s senior aides, was detained.
Videos published on social media showed police visiting the homes of Mr Navalny’s spokesperson and other prominent supporters with documents warning them of arrest if they continued to promote the rallies. Mr Los was detained and taken to a police station, he said.
Rozkomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog, demanded TikTok, the popular video-sharing app, and VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, remove posts publicising the rallies, warning that they were encouraging minors to break the law.
Igor Denisov, the former captain of Russia’s national football team, posted a message calling for Mr Navalny’s release, while videos posted on TikTok showed Russian schoolchildren replacing the portrait of Mr Putin that hangs in classrooms with a photograph of the activist.
Videos on the app tagged with hashtags “January 23” and “Free Navalny” have more than 100m combined views.
Blogger taught users English phrases to pretend to be American and avoid arrest. “If they try to shove you into the paddy wagon, you say ‘You are violating my human rights!’” she said.