Russian police released opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Alexei Navalny on Friday after several hours in detention.
Police charged Navalny with repeatedly organizing unauthorized rallies, an administrative offense punishable with a fine of up to a 300,000 rubles ($5,200) and compulsory work for up to 200 hours.
“We were finally presented with a charge and released, and the trial will be on October 2 at the Simonovsky Court of Moscow at 15:00 Moscow time,” Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Interfax.
Police had stopped Navalny early Friday as he was headed to a campaign rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where at least one other rally leader was also detained — Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov.
“I’m in a police station now and they’re going to accuse me of repeated violation of the procedure for holding a mass event,” Navalny told VOA’s Russian service reporter Danila Galperovich earlier Friday. “It means almost for sure they will arrest me after the court will hear my case. I don’t know when.”
Police in Nizhny Novgorod, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) east of Moscow, had cordoned off the campaign rally site hours before the event was to begin and removed a Navalny campaign tent.
Despite the police actions, hundreds of Navalny’s supporters rallied Friday in the provincial city in protest. Images from social media showed protesters walking on a central street while loud music from an officially sanctioned concert blared nearby.
Call for reform
Navalny’s detention came as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights issued a memorandum saying Russian authorities should revise the country’s freedom of assembly law, which, he says, has become more restrictive in recent years.
“As a result, the authorities have rejected a high number of requests to hold public assemblies,” said Commissioner Nils Muiznieks in the published memorandum. “Over the past year, there have been many arrests of people participating in protests, even if they did not behave unlawfully, as well as a growing intolerance toward ‘unauthorized’ events involving small numbers of participants and even of single-person demonstrations.
“This runs counter to Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and it weakens the guarantees contained in its own Constitution concerning the right to freedom of assembly,” Muiznieks said.
Russia is one of 47 member countries in the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, but routinely dismisses its criticism.
‘Trend toward deterioration’
Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign team have been harassed and attacked numerous times by police and Kremlin supporters. In April, a man threw a chemical sanitizer in the Russian opposition leader’s face, causing a chemical burn that required eye surgery and left him partially blind.
Navalny supporter Nikolai Lyaskin was reportedly attacked in Moscow this month with an iron pipe.
In an exclusive interview with VOA reporter Galperovich on September 26, Navalny expressed dismay at the repressive trend.
“We currently see a trend toward deterioration: At first it was fines, then administrative arrests, and now it is fabrication of criminal charges [and] house arrest,” he said.
Navalny said the trend is reminiscent of how Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Purge began in 1937.
“The capabilities of propaganda are mostly exhausted: You turn on the TV, which from morning until night is talking about beautiful North Korea, awful Ukraine, ‘gay’ Europe, et cetera. It is already impossible there [on TV] to fan the flames higher. Therefore, they are using repression to take people off the streets, to intimidate them,” Navalny said.
Navalny plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia’s March presidential election, though Putin has made no official announcement to run in a bid to continue his 17 years as leader.
The Russian opposition leader has been campaigning in cities across the country despite the central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence. Navalny’s supporters and numerous independent analysts back up his view that the sentence was politically motivated.
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on September 21 demanded that Navalny be allowed to take part in the elections and that the fraud case against him and opposition politician Pyotr Ofitserov be re-examined.
In the interview Tuesday with Galperovich, Navalny expressed doubt that Russian authorities would act on the European ministers’ demand.
“I do not think that international structures can affect that much; at least, we have not in recent years seen international structures somehow straightforwardly affecting the internal political situation in Russia,” Navalny said.
But he said the resolution was satisfying nonetheless. “It is probably the best of all possible rulings we could hope for,” he said. “It quite clearly and distinctly shows that, first of all, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights was not implemented and, secondly, that there is a demand there for my admission to the elections.”
The European Court of Human Rights had demanded Navalny’s 2013 fraud case be retried because it violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial in July that resulted in the same verdict and a suspended sentence.