Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrial nations have condemned Russia for the "politically motivated" detention of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and the "violent suppression" of protesters demanding his release over the weekend.
In a joint statement on January 26, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States called Navalny’s detention "deplorable" and demanded his "immediate and unconditional release."
"Russia is bound by its national and international obligations to respect and ensure human rights," they 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 he accuses Putin of ordering.
Navalny faces up to a 3 1/2 year sentence if convicted for violating a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement case that Europe’s top human rights court deemed illegal. Russian prosecutors appear to be claiming that the terms of the sentence were broken when Navalny was flown out of the country on an emergency air ambulance to be treated for the nerve-agent attack.
"It is deplorable that Mr. Navalny is being detained in relation to court decisions which the European Court of Human Rights determined in 2017 to be arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable," the foreign ministers said.
"The confirmed use of chemical weapons against an opposition politician, as well as Mr. Navalny's latest detention further undermine democracy, independent voices, and political plurality in Russia," they added.
Russia was suspended from the G8 – now known as the G7 – in 2014 in response to its forcible seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
Despite a sweeping police crackdown that saw more 3,700 people detained in nationwide protests over the weekend, Navalny and his allies are undeterred in pressing for his release and exposing government corruption. Dozens of Navalny associates in various cities were detained before the protests.
The G7 foreign ministers said they were concerned by the “violent suppression” of peaceful protest and the detention of thousands of people and journalists.
Navalny's team has called for more demonstrations on January 31 and February 2, when a court is scheduled to consider motions to convert his suspended sentence into a real prison term.
Human rights groups have joined Western governments in calling for Navalny's release and condemning the crackdown on peaceful protests.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on January 26 called on the EU to impose further sanctions on Russian officials after more than 50 journalists were "arbitrarily detained" during the protests.
“The police deliberately targeted certain media, going so far as to enter a private apartment in order to cut off a video feed of the demonstrations, and in a sign of the totally disproportionate nature of the crackdown, even clearly-identified reporters wearing 'press' vests or armbands were held for several hours,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on January 26 said there could be "no dialogue" with those who joined the "illegal" protests – Russia’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in years -- and "took part in riots."
Meanwhile, a prominent hard-line ally of Russian President Vadimir Putin accused the West of using Navalny, 44, to try to “destabilize” Russia and says the jailed Kremlin foe must be held accountable for allegedly breaking the law.
Referring to Navalny as "this figure," Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, told the online media outlet Argumenty i Fakty that the opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner had “repeatedly [and] grossly broken Russian legislation, engaging in fraud concerning large amounts” of money.
"And as a citizen of Russia, he must bear responsibility for his illegal activity in line with the law," Patrushev said.
He also alleged that "the West needs this figure to destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheaval, strikes, and new Maidans," a reference to the pro-European protests in late 2013 and early 2014 that ousted Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Asked about the protests, Putin said on January 25 that “all people have the right to express their point of view within limits, outlined by law."
Speaking to students via video, Putin also called allegations that an opulent Black Sea mansion belongs to him an attempt to "brainwash" Russian citizens.
"Nothing that's shown there as my property belongs to me, or my close relatives, and doesn't and didn't belong. Never," he said in a response to one student's questioning of an investigative report published by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation on January 19, two days after he was taken behind bars.
The report -- A Palace for Putin -- showcases a luxurious, 100 billion-ruble ($1.35 billion) estate near the popular holiday town of Gelendzhik that it said belongs to Putin
A nearly two-hour YouTube video accompanying the report went viral on Russian social media, with more than 86 million people watching it.
Navalny alleges that Putin effectively owns the palace via a complex trail of companies.
Peskov said that "one or several [businessmen] directly or indirectly own" the property, adding that the Kremlin "has no right to reveal the names of these owners."
Putin has often denied having any serious wealth, and his name has never emerged in any publicly available documents that would attest to massive riches or offshore companies.
But several investigative reports, including by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), have alleged some of Putin's friends and relatives have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets without the corresponding jobs to accumulate such wealth.