Russian authorities stepped up pressure on jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny on Wednesday, as police raided his apartment and offices, as well as those of his allies and took his brother into custody ahead of new protests for his release this weekend.
The 44-year-old, who nearly died after being poisoned last year, was jailed for breaching parole terms when he returned home last week from life-saving treatment in Germany.
Authorities say Wednesday’s raids are part of a criminal investigation into violations of coronavirus restrictions at protests last weekend when tens of thousands took to the streets to demand Navalny’s release.
Police have said the protests were illegal and OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said nearly 4,000 demonstrators were detained. More rallies are expected on Saturday.
Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s FBK Anti-Corruption Foundation, said police searched flats linked to Navalny as well as the organisation’s offices over alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions. Russia’s Interior Ministry said earlier on Wednesday it had begun a criminal investigation into breaches of COVID-19 rules during the protests.
Navalny, whose foundation is known for its investigations into alleged corruption among Russia’s political elite, has emerged as the most prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin.
Its most recent report – a nearly two-hour long video posted to YouTube – claimed Putin was given a $1.5bn palace on the Black Sea coast as a gift; an allegation rejected by the president. The film, released after Navalny was detained, has been viewed some 97 million times.
Zhdanov tweeted that Oleg Navalny, who was released from jail in 2018 after serving three-and-a-half years for an embezzlement conviction that critics say was designed to put pressure on the opposition figure and stamp out dissent, had been in his brother’s apartment during the search.
Zhdanov said police appeared to be conducting the raids as part of an investigation into calls for more protests, which breached social-distancing restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They started breaking down the door,” he tweeted.
Speaking in Washington, DC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reiterated the United States’s concern about the treatment of Navalny and the human rights situation in Russia.
“It remains striking to me how concerned and maybe even scared the Russian Government seems to be of one man, Mr Navalny,” Blinken said. “His voice is the voice of many, many, many Russians, and it should be heard, not muzzled.”
Blinken’s remarks come a day after the Group of Seven industrial democracies jointly called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday called the statement “gross interference” in the country’s domestic affairs and an “openly unfriendly step”.
Zhdanov later said that police had detained Ilya Pakhomov, an aide to Navalny, outside the opposition politician’s flat.
Zhdanov also posted video taken at another apartment showing Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, telling police to wait for her lawyer to arrive as they banged loudly at the door.
Navalnaya’s lawyer, Veronika Polyakova, was allowed inside the apartment by police after standing outside the door for several hours.
“It used to be that touching the family was against the code of honour,” Polyakova tweeted. “Now there is neither code, nor honour.”
Police also searched the home of Lyubov Sobol, an ally Navalny who was detained at last week’s protests, Navalny’s allies said.
Police took Sobol in for questioning as a witness, but she was later ordered to remain in police custody for 48 hours, also for allegedly violating sanitary regulations, Navalny’s team said.