MOSCOW — The Kremlin strongly rebuffed Western criticism Thursday 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 unauthorized protests.
“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement. It was provoked by participants in unsanctioned actions,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a call with reporters.
Massive protests erupted after Navalny, 44, an 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. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that 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.
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 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.
Sobol was charged Thursday with inciting the violation of sanitary regulations by organizing protests. She was also fined for resisting police while waiting for Navalny to arrive in Moscow from Germany last month.
Protests of 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 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 packed into police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg quickly ran out of space. After a long wait, they were crammed into overcrowded jail cells with no precautions to prevent them from being infected with the coronavirus.
Navalny’s associate Maria Pevchikh tweeted a picture of a detention facility in Sakharovo outside Moscow, where 28 people were packed into one cell intended for eight, ridiculing the charges against Navalny’s brother, Sobol and others accused of violation of coronavirus restrictions.
Some of the detainees 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, 30-year-old architect 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.
“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,” he said after being freed late Wednesday.
Eva Sokolova said after walking out of detention in Sakharovo that she slept two nights on the floor of a police precinct before the court jailed her for three days.
“There were four of us sleeping on mattresses put on the cell’s floor with single-use sheets and no pillows or blankets,” she said.
About 150 relatives of the detainees waited outside in the snow for many hours Wednesday to hand over food and necessities. One of them, Tatiana Yastrebova, said she waited six hours for officials to accept some items she brought for her son.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, shrugged off questions about detainees waiting for many hours 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 the 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.
Asked if Russian authorities would allow EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to visit Navalny in jail after he arrives for a visit to Moscow Thursday, Peskov said that it would be up to Russian courts and prison authorities to consider the request. Moscow court officials wouldn’t immediately say if Borrell would be granted access should he ask for a meeting with Navalny.
Kostya Manenkov contributed to this report.