More than 1,700 protesters were arrested in Russia on Wednesday as tens of thousands of Alexei Navalny supporters marched in demonstrations across the country.
OVD-info, the Russian human rights monitoring project, has been tracking the apprehensions, which started before the protests demanding that the Kremlin release the jailed opposition leader even began.
Navalny has been on a three week hunger strike in prison, where his physician said earlier this week he could die "at any minute" without the proper medical care. Supporters organized the rallies — defying a national ban — to pressure President Vladimir Putin and his government to release the anti-corruption campaigner and to stop the Kremlin from shuttering Navalny's organization.
The marches swept across dozens of cities and were scheduled on the same day Putin delivered Russia's state of the union address. As crowds swelled in many places, demonstrators were met with heavy police presence in most major cities.
"For once, the police stood back and let them march - no dragging screaming protesters into their vans," the BBC reported from Moscow. "In St Petersburg it was different: hundreds were arrested there, some stunned with electric shockers by police."
Russia's Interior Ministry estimated about 6,000 pro-Navalny supporters turned out in Moscow and another 4,500 reached the streets in St. Petersburg, The Moscow Times reported. But observers indicate the turnout in Moscow alone was in the tens of thousands, according to the outlet. Police in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, also reported significantly lower numbers than the figures estimated by Navalny's office; officials there said about 5,000 people attended the rally, while Navalny's local office said 13,000 to 14,000 participated in the event.
Navalny is the most prominent opposition figure in Russia and authorities have petitioned the Moscow City Court to label Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and his regional headquarters network as "extremist." That would put them in the same category as ISIS, paving a path for the government to essentially outlaw the organization and levy prison sentences for staff and supporters. The court will review the request in a closed hearing on April 26, The Moscow Times reported.
"The detention of supporters of Alexei Navalny in advance of planned protests in Russia today are deplorable," Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said on Twitter.
"Authorities must respect the right to assembly," Michel added.
"I urge that the necessary and quality medical care be granted to Alexei Navalny and that he be released from prison."
The 44-year-old was arrested in mid-January after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for a nerve agent poisoning he says was orchestrated by Putin. He began the hunger strike after prison officials refused to adequately treat him for leg and back pain, he has said, adding that the two are likely linked to his poisoning.
On Monday Russian prison authorities announced Navalny had been moved to a medical ward at a different prison, where he would undergo "vitamin therapy." But Navalny has said prison officials have threatened to force-feed him.
Despite the crackdown and the looming threat to the Kremlin critic's organizations, Navalny's supporters say they will not capitulate.
"It is, of course, an element of escalation," Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny ally who is also the director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told the AP.
"But I have to say we were able to regroup and organize our work despite the pressure before. I'm confident that now, too, we will find ways to work... We have neither the intention nor the possibility to abandon what we're doing."
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