Russian police have issued a strong warning against participating in protests that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has called for on January 31.
Moscow police have announced plans to restrict movement in the capital and close seven central metro stations in preparation for “unauthorized” demonstrations. Businesses, restaurants, and cafes in the areas near the protest zones will also be shut.
The protests are planned in Lubyanka Square outside the headquarters of the FSB security agency and Staraya Square, where the presidential administration has its offices.
Russian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Irina Volk cited the coronavirus pandemic on January 30 in warning against protests. Participants found in violation of regulations to control the spread of the virus could face criminal charges, she said.
The latest move against Navalny's associates on January 29 came as Moscow police announced plans to restrict movement in the capital and close seven central metro stations in preparation for "unauthorized" demonstrations "punishable by law."
Demonstrations in dozens of cities on January 23 brought out tens of thousands of people calling for the opposition leader's release. Police detained almost 4,000 people in the demonstrations.
On January 29, a Moscow court placed Oleg Navalny, Aleksei's brother, Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny's Moscow headquarters, under house arrest until March 23.
A member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Maria Alyokhina, and the head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union, Anastasia Vaislyeva, were also ordered under house arrest for two months.
All were detained and charged with violating restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic by calling for mass protests.
On January 30 the editor in chief of Mediazona, Sergei Smirnov, was detained in Moscow. Police officers were waiting for him outside his home when he went out for a walk with his son, according to RFE/RL’s Russian Service. Smirnov was charged with violating the law on rallies.
Another journalist, Yekaterina Lushnikova of RFE/RL's Idel Realities (Idel.Realii), found a summons for at her flat door on January 30 and phoned police to ask about it. She was told that the police want to conduct a "preventive talk" and hand over a "warning about a mass event."
In another move, the Investigative Committee announced on January 29 that it had charged in absentia Navalny's close associate, Leonid Volkov, with calling on teenagers to take part in the "unlawful" rallies organized by Navalny's supporters.
In a letter posted on his website on January 28 after a court rejected an appeal against his detention until February 15, Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critic, called on Russians to cast aside fear and stage fresh protests.
"Come on out, don't be afraid of anything. Nobody wants to live in a country where tyranny and corruption reign. The majority is on our side," Navalny said.
Navalny was arrested on January 17 upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent in August, which he accuses Putin of ordering, a claim the Kremlin denies.
A Russian court on January 28 confirmed his 30-day pretrial sentence, rejecting an appeal by the dissident's lawyers to set him free.
A hearing set to begin on February 2 will determine whether an earlier suspended sentence will be converted into 3 1/2 years in prison in relation to an embezzlement case that is widely considered trumped up and politically motivated. Prosecutors are alleging he violated the terms of his probation while receiving treatment in Germany.
Navalny’s poisoning and detention have led to a groundswell of condemnation in Russia and abroad, with the EU among others warning of further sanctions if the opposition leader isn’t freed.
Russian anger has been propelled by the findings of a two-hour film made by Navalny alleging Putin owns an opulent $1.36 billion palace on the Black Sea.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia commented on the protests in an interview with the TV channel Dozhd broadcast on January 30.
John Sullivan said that Washington and Moscow have differences on all issues related to the poisoning of Navalny and his arrest after returning from Germany.
The new U.S. administration has said sanctions against Russia could be tightened over Moscow’s treatment of Navalny and the opposition.