MOSCOW – The Kremlin said Thursday that thousands of arrests at protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were a necessary response to the unsanctioned rallies and strongly rebuffed Western criticism.
Asked about the harsh treatment of thousands of detainees, many of whom spent long hours on police buses and were put in overcrowded cells, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said they have to bear responsibility for joining the unauthorized protests.
"The situation wasn't provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unsanctioned actions," Peskov said in a call with reporters.
Massive protests erupted after Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner who is Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested Jan. 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.
A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Navalny to prison for two years and eight months, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany, a ruling that caused international outrage and triggered new protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Following Navalny's arrest, authorities also have 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.
On Thursday, Sobol was formally charged with the incitement of violation of sanitary regulations by organizing protests.
Protests have spread across Russia's 11 time zones over the past two weekends, drawing tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent with 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 the OVD-Info group monitoring arrests. Many detainees had to spend hours on police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg quickly ran out of space and later were crammed into cells intended to accommodate far fewer inmates.
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 suffering from engine fumes or shivering cold when it was cut off.
"While we were driving, staying, the whole day passed," he said after being freed late Wednesday. "When you sit inside a police van with engine and heat on, the smell of gas or diesel fuel is unbearable. When it’s off, the steam comes out of your mouth."
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," Peskov said. "Above all, these are the people who took part in unlawful actions."
He said that Russia won't listen to Western criticism of Navalny's sentencing and police action against protesters.
"We aren't going to take into account such statements regarding the enforcement of our laws on those who violate them and Russian court verdicts," Peskov said.