Human Rights Watch (HRW) has added its voice to a growing chorus of calls urging Russian authorities to curb their "unlawful" campaign against jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, whose associates are being pressured and rounded up ahead of expected nationwide protests this weekend.
At least five allies of the 44-year-old were detained on January 21, including top officials from his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), as authorities warned social media and news networks against spreading information about the planned protest. Demonstrations are planned in dozens of cities on January 23 in support of Navalny following his detention last weekend upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been receiving treatment since August for a nearly fatal poisoning with a nerve agent. 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 makeshift court claimed that, while he was receiving life-saving medical treatment in Berlin, Navalny violated probation requirements in a previous criminal case that was widely considered to have been trumped up and politically motivated. He faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison.
"Russian authorities are harassing, intimidating, and detaining activists and students ahead of protests planned for January 23, 2021 in solidarity with the detained opposition leader Aleksei Navalny," HRW said on January 22 .
"Authorities also ordered social media companies to take down all posts calling for people to participate in protests, threatening hefty fines for failure to comply," HRW said, urging them to "cease these unlawful attacks on freedom of expression and instead focus on ensuring safety measures to protect those who wish to assemble peacefully."
Those detained included Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and ally of Navalny, Vladlen Los, a lawyer for FBK, Anastasia Panchenko, the coordinator of Navalny's headquarters in the southern Krasnodar region, Georgy Alburov, an FBK employee, and Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.
"The Kremlin is having a panic attack. They are ordering that everyone be detained," Sobol told Current Time outside the police station after being released late on January 21. She described the authorities' behavior as "absolute lawlessness."
"In the past year, Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and prosecuted anyone who has refused to comply," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
"People have every right to peacefully protest injustices, including in Navalny's case, through free speech and peaceful assemblies, and the authorities have an obligation to allow them to safely do so."
Several of those detained have hearings scheduled for January 22, including Yarmysh and Sobol. Los, who is Belarusian citizen, said he was briefly detained and informed that he must leave Russia by January 25.
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. EU lawmakers on January 21 passed a resolution calling on the bloc to "immediately" stop completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to take Russian natural gas to Germany in response to Navalny's arrest.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis renewed his call for further sanctions on Russia, adding in an interview with RFE/RL that a trip by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to Moscow next month should be canceled.
The Kremlin denies any role in Navalny's poisoning and with support for the protests appearing to be on the rise, Russian officials have begun to issue warnings that participation in any unsanctioned rallies will be met with punishment. Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Gorovoi said that police across Russia "are getting ready to defend public order during the events scheduled for Saturday as some quasi-politicians have announced unsanctioned events across the country via their structures." Russia's telecommunications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, went as far as urging social media networks, including video-sharing app TikTok, to stop the spreading of posts by users that call on Russia's youth to take part in "illegal" public gatherings such as the planned Navalny demonstration.
"Despite being poisoned and repeatedly thrown into jail, Aleksei Navalny refuses to go away, so Russian authorities will likely try to make him and his supporters disappear via censorship," said Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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 the Russian president.
The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 44 million times since its release on January 19, becoming the Navalny's most-watched YouTube investigation ever.