But the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the protests as violence motivated from abroad to undermine the country is eroding.
With more than 11,000 detainees out of overcrowded detention centers, they are speaking of violence, fear and potential rights violations.
Several of the detainees were beaten with batons or shocked with electric stun guns and described being for up to 16 hours without food, water, and access to toilets, according to reports compiled by OVD-Info, human rights lawyers, and interviews by The Washington Post. Some women have been threatened with rape, according to Gregory Dornovo of OVD-Info.
Police charged more than 90 criminal charges and more than 9,000 misdemeanor charges among detainees in 125 cities during waves of protests calling for the release of Navalny, who returned to Russia from Germany on January 17 after being treated for a near-fatal nerve. A worker was poisoned in August in Siberia.
OVD-Info stated that there were no acquittals.
It is unclear how rights groups and others will follow up on the detainees’ claims. In the past, however, similar allegations against Russian authorities have led to appeals being lodged with the European Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly condemned Russia’s crackdowns on the right to protest, and unlawful arrests and detentions.
Last month, the Foreign Ministry strongly condemned “Russia’s use of harsh methods against protesters and journalists.”
“There was no repression,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. He described the detainees’ specific accounts of the violations as inventions or distortions.
However, the cases began to build up a cluster of alleged violations that could fuel opposition protests expected in the spring and summer, with Russian authorities keen to quell the protest movement ahead of the planned parliamentary elections in September.
According to OVD-Info accounts, some protesters were taken to special beat-up rooms in police stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Detainees said they were not allowed to carry their phones to call lawyers or their families. Dornovo said that those who tried to defend their rights were denied use of the toilet for many hours, or sentenced to longer prison terms.
Reports of OVD-Info, attorneys, and detainees cannot be independently verified by The Post, but they do align with videos and accounts by local media and human rights groups and evidence submitted to the European Court of Human Rights from previous protests.
“We are now witnessing a war against human rights lawyers or organizations like ours,” said Dornovo. “They hide people from human rights lawyers or make the situation more difficult for them than if there was no lawyer.”
He said that a volunteer from the opposition, Alyona Kitayeva, reported that a policeman placed a plastic bag on her head, kicked her, hit her, and threatened to shock her unless she opened her phone.
Detainees describe police cells without mattresses, heating, or pillows. Some were told that they woke up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, were loaded into vans and taken to other stops.
“This is what is happening now,” said St. Petersburg lawyer Sergei Loktief. “If someone has a different view of the authorities, that opinion should be destroyed.”
A speech by President Vladimir Putin Wednesday to the board of directors of the FSB, the local intelligence agency’s successor to the KGB, underscored the Kremlin’s concern. Putin described the pro-Navalny movement as a Western campaign to “foment internal instability” and “ultimately weaken Russia and place it under external control.”
His words echoed the warnings of neighboring Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko when he faced mass protests last year. He imprisoned the main opposition figures, unleashed brutal police violence against peaceful demonstrators and clung to power, in what some analysts see as a roadmap for Putin.
Judges refused to allow accused protesters to call witnesses, rejected evidence and rejected appeals, according to detainees and lawyers. The Russian Investigation Commission has released at least eight Chinese-style video “confessions” into criminal cases, with public and humiliating apologies.
Every known member of Navalny’s team who did not flee the country was arrested and subsequently placed under house arrest. All but one of the 38 regional coordinators were arrested.
In the rush to arrest and convict, the system at times became ridiculous.
Riot police arrested Yevgeny Agafonov, a deaf 45-year-old, in St. Petersburg on January 31. In a written statement, Agafonov said he was only on his way to an art supply store. He was charged with demonstrating, obstructing traffic and chanting slogans. He is unable to speak.
Agafonov’s lawyer, Sergei Lokhtev, was shocked when Judge Yulia Ushanova found guilty and imposed a fine on him.
Political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov, emeritus research fellow at University College London, wrote in the independent news and commentary site MBKh that Putin abandoned legal proceedings with the protesters “even as a decoration.”
Timofey Kret, 34, a physicist at Moscow State University, said he was not protesting and presented video evidence of his arrest on January 31 while standing under a railway station clock at 12:45 p.m. Moscow at 3 pm convicted and sentenced to 10 days imprisonment.
“You could be arrested just because you went out and did what you wanted. It’s like living under a military curfew that no one has announced.”
He described the freezing and overcrowded cells. “It was so cold that we couldn’t sleep. We knocked on the door trying to call someone, but no one came.”
Dmitry Yepeshin, 22, who was expelled from university in Saint Petersburg for participating in a 2017 protest, said he was interrogated without a lawyer at 3 a.m. and spent 40 hours on transportation before being placed in a cramped immigration detention center in Sakhorovo, about 40 miles southwest of Moscow.
There were about 200 of us trapped, Omon [riot police] They surrounded us, pushing from both sides. We shouted that we do not have weapons, but they started hitting people, ”describing his arrest. “It was scary and terrifying.”
Alexander Golovac, 30, who investigates corrupt state contracts at the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and spent four days behind bars over the protest, said conditions of detention were “totally unacceptable and aimed at humiliating and intimidating people.” He is afraid that he will be arrested again.
“I will not lie. I am concerned. But I cannot hold back. These unprecedented measures of restraint and attempts to intimidate and intimidate people are not succeeding.”
In mid-February, as the temperature dropped to -15 degrees, relatives of the convicted protesters lined up outside the Sakharovo detention center to deliver food parcels.
The Russian authorities are trying to scare people as much as they can and get the most active people out of the picture. “It’s a totalitarian and authoritarian turn in the country,” said one protester, Yelena Gabelaia, angered by the court’s rejection of the video evidence it believes proves that the charges brought by the police against her son are false.
Sergey Kozakov, 50, who was awaiting a food parcel, vowed to join the upcoming protest, outraged by the repression and worsening living standards.
“There is no feeling of hope now. We do not see any light. It is total darkness. It is as if we were in a concentration camp. There are no laws. There is no truth, only lies.”
Vlad Malikov, 19, a student arrested at his first protest, said the conditions were appalling, but the camaraderie during the five-day detention period reminded him of a summer childhood camp. Among his cellmates was a prominent scientist, a doctor who works with Covid-19 patients, and a public relations manager.
“We laughed all five days. Previously, I was not interested in politics, but now I will always go to protests.” These are my kind of people. Everyone there was awesome. “