Russian officials are showing no signs of letting up in efforts to preempt planned nationwide street protests this weekend in support of Aleksei Navalny, vowing to “immediately suppress” any unsanctioned events and threatening jail time for demonstrators after rounding up several of the Kremlin critic’s allies for calling people to take to the streets.
Navalny's allies are planning to hold demonstrations on January 23 in at least 65 cities across the country to protest his arrest and incarceration upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated following a near-fatal poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in August.
At least five allies of the 44-year-old were detained on January 21, including top officials from his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
One of them, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, said in a tweet on January 22 that after spending the night in jail, she had been put under administrative arrest for organizing an unsanctioned event.
“Arrested for 9 days. Well, you know what to do. January 23 14.00, the central streets of your cities. Come!” she wrote, noting that a judge deliberated less than five minutes before handing down the sentence.
At a separate court hearing, another Navalny ally, activist Georgy Alburov, was sentenced by the Meshchansky district court to 10 days in jail on a similar charge, while FBK lawyer Lyubov Sobol was fined 250,000 rubles ($3,340).
Sobol's lawyer, Vladimir Voronin, said the judge refused to allow media into the January 22 trial, noting that a protocol handed to him on Sobol’s “offense” was empty.
Undeterred, Sobol wrote in a Facebook post: "Don't be afraid. Leave it to the Kremlin. We're in the right, and we're the majority.”
"What awaits us in the near future, if we keep silent. And silently watch as the innocent are imprisoned," she added in a tweet.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most-prominent critic, was remanded in custody on January 18 for a month in a summary hearing held in a Moscow police station a day after his arrival from Germany. The court claimed he violated probation requirements in a previous criminal case while receiving life-saving medical treatment in Berlin in a case widely considered trumped up and politically motivated. He faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison.
Navalny, in a message on Instagram via his lawyer late on January 22, said from a Moscow jail cell that he wanted people to know he was in good physical and mental health.
"Just in case, I am announcing that I don’t plan to either hang myself on a window grill or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon,” the post said.
Bloomberg, citing two sources close to Russia's leaders, reported on January 22 that the Kremlin intends to imprison Navalny for "several years, or even more."
Navalny has accused Putin of ordering his assassination and has called for Russians to "take to the streets" to protest against his detention, which has sparked widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France, and Canada all calling for his release.
"In my call with President Putin today, I reiterated (that the) EU is united in its condemnation of Alexei Navalny's detention and calls for his immediate release," European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, said on Twitter on January 22.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Russian authorities to curb their "unlawful" campaign against Navalny, saying they are “harassing, intimidating, and detaining activists and students” ahead of the protests.
“Cease these unlawful attacks on freedom of expression and instead focus on ensuring safety measures to protect those who wish to assemble peacefully," it said.
The Kremlin denies any role in Navalny's poisoning and with support for the protests appearing to grow, Russian officials have begun to issue warnings that participation in any unsanctioned rallies will be met with punishment.
"There is no doubt that certain actions involving calls for unsanctioned, illegal rallies have been taken,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow on January 22.
"There can be only one stance, the one in favor of the unconditional need to comply with the law, the inadmissibility of organizing illegal actions," he said, adding that "provocateurs" have been "illegally" encouraging younger Russians to participate in the rallies.
Russia's telecommunications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has already urged social media networks, including video-sharing app TikTok, to stop the spreading of posts by users that it says call on Russia's youth to take part in "illegal" public gatherings such as the planned Navalny demonstration.
In an ominous warning on January 22, Moscow police said they would crack down on opposition protests if they go ahead.
"Attempts to hold unsanctioned public events, as well as any provocative actions on the part of their participants, will be regarded as a threat to public order and immediately suppressed," Moscow police said in a statement.
Even though he was behind bars, Navalny's anti-corruption campaign delivered a solid blow to Putin this week when it released a probe into an opulent Black Sea property in the Krasnodar region allegedly owned by Putin.
The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 44 million times since its release on January 19, becoming Navalny's most-watched YouTube investigation ever.