MOSCOW – Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was on Wendesday sentenced to 30 days in prison in Russia for urging a major rally as his allies were targeted with a criminal probe, in an apparent attempt to crush a new protest wave.
The crackdown comes in the wake of a huge weekend rally in Moscow, the largest such demonstration in years, as anger grows over authorities’ refusal to put popular opposition candidates on the ballot at upcoming local polls.
Navalny and other anti-Kremlin politicians threatened to stage a major rally this Saturday near the mayor’s office, unless Moscow authorities registered opposition candidates.
Nalvalny, the top opponent of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested earlier Wednesday. “30 days of detention for Alexei Navalny,” his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter after a hearing at a Moscow court.
The Russian opposition has fought hard to get on the ballot for the Moscow parliament elections in September amid Putin’s falling approval ratings.
They have, however, been disqualified on what critics say are spurious grounds.
Navalny was detained as he was leaving his Moscow home to go jogging and buy flowers for his wife’s birthday.
“People are right when they say that sport is not always good for your health,” the 43-year-old quipped.
A coordinator from Navalny’s Moscow headquarters, Oleg Stepanov, was also detained and sentenced to eight days in jail.
Investigators also opened a criminal case into obstructing the work of election officials after Navalny’s allies and ordinary Muscovites staged a series of pickets and rallies outside the offices of the Moscow election commission and elsewhere.
For that offense organizers could face up to five years in prison.
Investigators said they would “question the organizers and participants of unauthorized rallies and pickets.
The protests involved “threats to use violence against members of the electoral commissions,” the Investigative Committee said.
This month Navalny has already served a 10-day jail sentence for violating a protest law.
His arrest came after more than 22,000 people rallied in Moscow on Saturday to demand independent politicians be allowed to run in the Sept. 8 vote.
The opposition said Saturday’s authorized protest was the largest since 2012, when tens of thousands rallied against election fraud during parliamentary polls.
The opposition politicians have worked hard to get on the ballot paper as they seek to capitalize on anger over declining living standards and unchecked corruption.
They say they were made to jump through countless hoops, and each had to collect roughly 5,000 signatures to be eligible.
But electoral authorities still refused to register the representatives of the opposition, accusing them of faking some of the signatures.
After the protest, 17 independent candidates including Ilya Yashin and Lyubov Sobol issued a joint statement, accusing Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin of sparking a “political crisis” in the city of some 15 million people.
On Tuesday, the disqualified politicians met the country’s election chief, Ella Pamfilova, who admitted that the situation was “unfair.
The talks, however, led nowhere, the opposition said.
Yashin, who is a local councilor, expressed hope that Navalny’s arrest would mobilize people.
“Just think about it: a mere demand to put representatives of the opposition on the ballot papers triggers a use of force scenario,” Yashin said on Facebook.
Another independent would-be candidate, Konstantin Jankauskas, said the crackdown was an attempt to discourage people from attending the Saturday rally.
“It means City Hall is afraid that a lot of people would turn up,” he said on Twitter.
Political commentator Alexander Kynev said the authorities would seek to nip in the bud the new protest wave by launching a crackdown.
“If this does not help and a lot of people turn up on Saturday then they’ll think what to do next,” he told AFP.