VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- Authorities in Russia's North Caucasus region of North Ossetia have arrested opera singer Vadim Cheldiyev for initiating anti-government rallies.
Cheldiyev's lawyer, Batraz Kulchiyev, told Current Time on April 21 that his client had launched a hunger strike to protest his two-month pretrial arrest.
Cheldiyev, who permanently resides in St. Petersburg, has called on North Ossetians to publicly protest coronavirus measures in the region and demand the resignation of regional leader Vyacheslav Bitarov and his government.
In a video statement posted on social networks, Cheldiyev claimed that the authorities in North Ossetia are exaggerating the dangers of the coronavirus in the region so that they can "steal" from ordinary people. He gives no evidence of wrongdoing.
His video statements led to his detention in St. Petersburg last week. He was charged with spreading fake news about the coronavirus and brought to North Ossetia over the weekend.
Investigators say that, during his transfer to North Ossetia, Cheldiyev punched a guard twice in the face, prompting the additional charge of assaulting a law enforcement officer.
Kulchiyev told RFE/RL on April 21 that his client denies that he attacked the officer and rejects the other charge as well.
Police in North Ossetia said on April 21 that 39 protesters were detained a day earlier when about 2,000 people gathered in the central square of the regional capital, Vladikavkaz, demanding Bitarov's resignation.
The rally lasted for several hours and police violently dispersed it by the end of the day.
Before the rally was dispersed, Bitarov and dozens of the protesters discussed local measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus in North Ossetia.
Bitarov said later that a special "initiative group" consisting of representatives of the protesters will be created to look into problems caused by the coronavirus.
He promised that families with low incomes and individuals who lost their jobs because of the pandemic will receive "all necessary assistance from the government."
However, on April 21, Bitarov condemned the rally in a statement.
"Some people ignore [COVID-19] recommendations, instructions, they violate laws. In doing so, ignorant citizens endanger not only their own health but the health of their loved ones. I consider such an irresponsible attitude to be unacceptable as it poses a threat to the republic's population," Bitarov said.
Bitarov also stressed that his government was doing all it can to provide families affected by the pandemic with assistance, adding that 152 families had received financial support.
As of April 1, the number of coronavirus cases in North Ossetia was reported as 177, including two deaths.