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Russia: More than 3,000 protesters arrested as scores demand release of opposition Alexei Navalny

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By Rachael Kennedy with AP
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Police detain a man during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Police detain a man during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP
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Thousands of protesters across Russia have been detained after rallying in numerous cities to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

At least 3,000 arrests were reported on Saturday in locations spanning from Siberia to Moscow, according to the OVD-info organisation that monitors political detentions, as thousands more demonstrated in temperatures as low as -50C.

Among the detained was Navalny's wife Yulia, who had joined the crowds in the capital. She initially posted a selfie to Instagram among the throng, and later another - from inside "the paddy wagon".

Videos on social media throughout the day showed police fighting with protesters at many of the 60 planned rallies, as well as pinning people into the snow. On Strastnoy Boulevard in Moscow, an enormous fight broke out amid exchanges of punches, pushing, and blows with riot batons.

In the Tverskoy District, also in Moscow, four police officers were pelted with dozens of snowballs as they held control of the adjacent road. Footage from the southwestern city of Kazan, meanwhile, showed officers chasing and pinning down protesters, beating them with batons.

The demonstrations had been planned throughout the week in response to Navalny's own arrest last Sunday. They served as an example of the anti-corruption activist's enormous base of support, even in the face of consistent government repression.

Navalny, who is the Kremlin's most prominent critic, was detained on January 17 as he arrived back in Russia after spending the last five months in Germany, recuperating from being poisoned. He had been given the deadly nerve agent Novichok in an act he believes was likely sanctioned by his biggest rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following his arrest, a judge jailed Navalny for 30 days for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014 over a conviction for financial misdeeds. The 44-year-old maintains the case was politically motivated. He will return to court in February to find out if he will serve his three-and-a-half year sentence in prison.

Anton Basanayev/AP
Thousands protested in the snow in YekaterinburgAnton Basanayev/AP

Saturday's first sweep of 850 arrests were reported as early protests got underway in the Far East and Siberia, while hundreds more happened during afternoon rallies further west.

Yekaterinburg, Tomsk and Vladivostok all saw thousands of people gather, as did Saint Petersburg and Moscow - which reportedly pulled a crowd of 15,000. Descending onto Pushkin Square, demonstrators were also reminded via a public address system to socially distance due to coronavirus.

Some protesters later lined the streets outside the capital's Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where Navalny is being held, only to be arrested themselves. They were spotted being put into a police van after officers in riot gear arrived.

Igor Volkov/AP
Hundress of people have been arrested at rallies in the Far East and SiberiaIgor Volkov/AP

Russian authorities had repeatedly tried to dampen spirits around the protests in the week leading up, with social media controls and warnings of legal action.

For instance, pressure was placed on social media app TikTok to prevent young audiences from encouraging each other to attend, while Navalny's associates in Moscow and elsewhere were detained.

Opposition supporters and independent journalists were approached by police officers and warned against participating in the demonstrations; universities and colleges threatened disciplinary action, including expulsion.