Russia pressures Navalny allies ahead of weekend protests

A woman watches an investigation film by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, on Jan 21, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian authorities on Thursday (Jan 21) detained a top aide of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny and warned social media platforms against spreading online calls to stage weekend protests.

Navalny's allies on Saturday are planning to hold demonstrations in around 65 cities across the country in support of the Kremlin critic who was arrested and jailed on his return to Russia over the weekend.

Navalny, 44, returned to Russia on Sunday from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent in an attack he blamed on Russian security services and President Vladimir Putin.

His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.

Prosecutors warned Russians against taking to the streets during the coronavirus pandemic and police later Thursday detained prominent activist Lyubov Sobol, a key Navalny ally.

"She was detained for calling people to join unsanctioned rallies," her lawyer Vladimir Voronin told AFP.

He added that Sobol, who is a lawyer by training, faces a fine.

Another lawyer with Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, Vladlen Los, who is a national of Belarus, said Thursday he had been ordered to leave Russia.

Prosecutors warned Russians against staging "illegal mass protests" and demanded a ban on websites promoting Saturday's demonstrations.

"Law enforcement agencies have been advised to take preventative measures and administrative action against violators," the Prosecutor General's office said in a statement.

State communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, for its part, cautioned social media platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies.

"Administrative action will be taken against internet platforms," the watchdog said, adding that failure to remove "banned information" could result in fines of up to 4 million rubles (S$72,000).

A hastily organised hearing on Monday ordered Navalny jailed for 30 days and his aides fear several pending cases against him are a pretext to give him a long prison term.

After he was placed behind bars, Navalny's associates released a probe into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin alongside a fund-raising call to support more investigations.

Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh told AFP on Thursday that his team has since received 10 million rubles in donations.

The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 44 million times since its release on Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic's most-watched YouTube investigation.

Following Navalny's arrest and latest graft report, many Russians took to social media - including TikTok, a video app popular among teens, and even dating app Tinder - to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.

A number of public figures including actors, musicians and athletes have in recent days spoken out in support of the jailed opposition figure.

The former captain of Russia's national football team, Igor Denisov, said Thursday that although he was never interested in politics, Navalny "should be freed".

In a video message on the website, Denisov said he had "great respect" for Navalny - an unusual step for Russian athletes who usually toe the Kremlin line.

Navalny in recent years has released a series of investigations into the alleged wealth of Putin's allies, but Tuesday's report was the first time he has targeted the Russian president in a lengthy expose.

The "Putin's palace" report alleges that the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square metre mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.

The Kremlin has denied the luxury complex belongs to Putin and urged Russians not to send their money to "crooks".

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