The Kremlin has strongly rebuffed Western criticism and described the thousands of arrests at protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a necessary response to the unsanctioned rallies.
Many of the people arrested spent long hours on police buses and were held in overcrowded jail cells. Asked about the treatment of detainees, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said they had to bear responsibility for joining the unauthorised protests.
“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement. It was provoked by participants in unsanctioned actions,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a call with reporters.
Massive protests erupted after Mr Navalny, (44), an anti-corruption campaigner who is Mr Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested on January 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning, which he has blamed on the Kremlin.
Russian authorities deny any involvement and claim they have no proof that he was poisoned, despite tests by several European labs.
On Tuesday, a Moscow court ordered Mr Navalny to prison for two years and eight months, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Mr Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled unlawful.
His imprisonment generated international outrage and triggered new protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Mr Navalny has another court hearing scheduled for Friday in Moscow on separate charges of slandering a World War II veteran. He has rejected the case as the Kremlin enacting political revenge.
Following Mr Navalny’s arrest, authorities also moved swiftly to silence and isolate his allies. Last week, a Moscow court put his brother, Oleg, top associate Lyubov Sobol, and several other key allies under house arrest – without access to the internet – for two months as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during protests.
Ms Sobol was charged yesterday with inciting the violation of sanitary regulations by organising protests. She was also fined for resisting police while waiting for Mr Navalny to arrive in Moscow from Germany last month.
Protests about Mr Navalny’s arrest and jailing have spread across Russia’s 11 time zones over the past two weekends, drawing tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent with Mr Putin’s rule in years.
In a no-holds-barred response to the protest, police arrested over 10,000 protest participants across Russia and beat scores, according to arrest-monitoring group OVD-Info. Many detainees spent hours on police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St Petersburg quickly ran out of space, and later were packed into jail cells.
Some of the arrested individuals said their cells lacked beds and they had to sleep on the floor, while others complained there weren’t enough beds and inmates took turns to get a nap.
One detainee, Almir Shamasov, who spent 10 days at a detention facility in Sakharovo, outside Moscow, said he spent 20 hours in a police van that either was flooded with fumes or shivering cold when the engine was cut off.
Mr Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, shrugged off questions about detainees waiting on police buses and being squeezed into cramped cells by saying they had themselves to blame.
“The number of detainees is larger than detention facilities can handle. It’s larger than what could be quickly processed, and that, unfortunately, causes such consequences,” he said.
He added that Russia won’t listen to Western criticism of Mr Navalny’s sentencing and the police action against protesters.