Fri, 07 May 2021

MOSCOW -- Russian police have detained hundreds of people across the country as they took part in protests demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny amid reports his health is failing as he enters the third week of a hunger strike over the medical treatment he is receiving in prison.

On a day when President Vladimir Putin gave his annual state of the union address, thousands of citizens from Vladivostok in the Far East to Moscow in central Russia joined the April 21 protests called by leaders of Navalny's Anti Corruption Foundation (FBK), which the government is seeking to shut down claiming it is an extremist organization.

'It's obvious why we came today. We want freedom for Navalny,' Yevgeny Fartuk, a 35-year-old engineer who joined the Moscow protest, told RFE/RL.

Fartuk said he was willing to risk arrest to support the Kremlin critic -- who is known for his investigative videos exposing the unexplained wealth of Russia's top officials -- because he has 'opened everyone's eyes' to state corruption.

Navalny's state of health forced his allies to move up the rallies as they worried he could be harmed 'irreparably' by his mistreatment in prison.

'We believe Mr Navalny's life is in serious danger,' a group of four independent UN experts on the issues of freedom of expression, torture, extrajudicial executions, and the right to physical and mental health said in a statement on April 21.

'We are deeply troubled that Mr Navalny is being kept in conditions that could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,' said the experts, who are appointed by the UN but do not speak on behalf of the world body.

Photo Gallery: Navalny Protests Roll Across Russia RFE/RL Russians have begun protests demanding the release of Aleksei Navalny as police in Moscow and other cities rounded up allies of the jailed opposition leader as rallies rolled across the country on April 21. Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on В Контакте Email to a Friend Share on LinkedIn

The number of protesters appeared smaller than expected amid a heavy police presence, a roundup of Navalny allies early in the day, threats of arrest, and the closure of key meeting spots, like Manezh Square near the Kremlin.

Protests called by Navalny and FBK in January to condemn the Kremlin critic's arrest drew tens of thousands of people, making them the largest anti-government demonstrations in years.

Police began to detain key Navalny supporters on April 21 even before the start of the rallies at 7 p.m. local time, prompting criticism at home and abroad for the heavy-handed tactics.

In Moscow, Lyubov Sobol, one of the faces of Navalny's popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, were both detained in Moscow on April 21, according to their lawyers.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Ryzhkov, the former deputy speaker of the Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, told the TASS news agency that police had detained him on suspicion of violating the law on holding public events and mass gatherings.

European Council President Charles Michel called the arrest of Navalny's closest allies prior to the start of the demonstration 'deplorable.'

'Authorities must respect the right to assembly,' said Michel, who chairs EU summits.

More than 365 people had been detained across the country by 7 p.m. Moscow time.

Protesters chanted 'freedom to political prisoners' and 'we are not extremists,' a reference to the Kremlin's basis for trying to shut down FBK.

The Moscow Prosecutor's Office asked a court to label as 'extremist' three organizations tied to Navalny -- the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens' Rights Protection Foundation, and Navalny's regional headquarters.

Prosecutors claim the organizations are 'engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans.'

The request comes ahead of crucial national parliamentary elections later this year. FBK is seeking to rally citizens to vote against the ruling United Russia party.

Some Navalny supporters have expressed fear that the April 21 protest could be among the last if the Kremlin gets its way.

'This isn't the final battle. There'll be many other opportunities to be heard,' Oleg, a 32-year-old who joined the Moscow protest, told RFE/RL.

Navalny's team announced protests in more than 160 Russian cities and towns to draw attention to his plight and for prison authorities to allow him access to independent doctors.

SEE ALSO: In Urging A 'Final Battle' With The Kremlin, Navalny's Team Bets Against Apathy

Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying four doctors from outside Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) visited Navalny on April 20 and found no serious health problems.

She gave no details on the doctors and there was no immediate word from Navalny's team about the report.

However, the assessment runs contrary to a letter to Russia's FSIN last week from Anastasia Vasilyeva, Navalny's personal physician, and three other doctors, including a cardiologist, who said the 44-year-old's health was rapidly deteriorating and his potassium count had reached a 'critical level,' meaning 'both impaired renal function and serious heart rhythm problems can happen any minute.'

Navalny's state of health forced his allies to move up the rallies as they worried he could be harmed 'irreparably' by his mistreatment in prison.

SEE ALSO: U.S. Again Calls On Russia To Allow Doctors To See Hunger-Striking Navalny 'Immediately'

Navalny was arrested on January 17 upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he received life-saving treatment for a poisoning in Siberia in August 2020.

He has insisted that his poisoning with a Soviet-style chemical nerve agent was ordered directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Kremlin have denied any role in the poisoning.

In February, a Moscow court ruled that while in Germany, Navalny had violated the terms of parole from an old embezzlement case that is widely considered to be politically motivated.

Navalny's 3 1/2-year suspended sentence from the case was converted to a jail term, though the court said he will serve 2 1/2 years in prison given time already served in detention.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over the Navalny affair and crackdown on protesters.

With reporting by Siberia.Realities, MBKh Media, Kam 24, and TASS

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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