Russia on Wednesday defended its crackdown on protesters demanding the release of opposition figure Alexei Navalny as his allies vowed to continue putting pressure on the Kremlin.
Protest monitors said that more than 10,000 people were detained at recent nationwide rallies in support of President Vladimir Putin’s loudest critic, who was handed a prison term on Tuesday.
The verdict spurred Navalny’s supporters onto the streets of Moscow where riot police used batons to disperse the protesters who were detained en masse.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that “the holding of unauthorised rallies raises concerns and justifies the tough actions of the police.”
Demonstrations in more than one hundred cities across Russia were sparked last month by Navalny’s detention in a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany where he had been recovering after being poisoned in August.
On Tuesday, the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner was given a jail term of two years and eight months for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence on embezzlement charges he claims were a pretext to silence him.
The case presented one of the most serious challenges to the Kremlin in years, with some in the West calling for new sanctions against Russia.
But Navalny’s jailing has also weakened Russia’s opposition movement now without its most prominent figure whose aides have also been seized by police.
Navalny’s wife Yulia said that “good, strong” people support her and her husband so there was no need to “retreat or be afraid”.
“We will win anyway,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s regional network, said earlier that even after the verdict on Tuesday, “everything is just beginning”.
“We will increase pressure on Putin… new investigations will come out. New peaceful rallies and marches will be held,” he wrote on Telegram.
In its most recent investigation, Navalny’s team accused Putin of having received as a gift an opulent palace on the Black Sea coast in a video that garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube.
The report spurred tens of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets over consecutive weekends last month, with protester chants and signs referencing the investigation.
The OVD-Info group that monitors opposition protests said Wednesday that more than 10,000 people had been seized by police at those rallies and the protests that followed the court hearing.
Russia’s Union of Journalists said weighed in, noting that over 100 journalists were either injured or detained at rallies.
An analyst working for OVD-Info, Grigory Durnovo, told AFP that many of the detainees had been subjected to “difficult conditions” in custody and that authorities were purposefully carrying out “harsh detentions”.
He also noted that the group’s lawyers, who provide free legal aid to protesters, had been denied access to detention centres.
The authorities “are openly demonstrating that a lawyer is perceived as an accomplice of the offender,” he said.
Echoing detainee testimonies, Durnovo said Moscow’s jails had reached full capacity due to the massive influx of Navalny supporters.
On Tuesday, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, ordered checks of detained men to see if they have avoided military service, which in Russia is compulsory for one year.
Navalny’s arrest and the violent police crackdown has been condemned by international rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, Britain and France.
Germany on Wednesday reiterated calls to free Navalny and said that more EU sanctions on Russia “cannot be ruled out”.
The UN Human Rights Office called for the release of protesters detained “for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression”.