Nearly 200 protesters were detained at anti-Kremlin rallies across Russia on Wednesday, a monitor said, as protesters demanded the release of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who has been on hunger strike for three weeks.
Protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are set to take place from 7 pm (1600 GMT) and crowds earlier in the day took to the streets in the Far East, the Urals and Siberia, chanting slogans critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny’s aides posted videos on Twitter that showed protesters crowding central squares in large cities, shouting slogans including “Putin is a killer” and “Down with the Tsar!”
Protesters accused the authorities of abusing human rights and said Navalny had been thrown in prison in revenge for speaking up.
“He was trying to speak about the lawlessness that the government is perpetrating,” Vadim Sobolev, a rail worker, told AFP in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok.
Members of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, which prosecutors are seeking to designate an “extremist” organisation, said the rallies could be Russia’s last protests for years to come.
The demonstrations took place across the country, including in Siberia’s Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Tomsk.
OVD Info, which tracks detentions at opposition rallies, said that at least 198 people had been held across the country including 27 people in Kemerovo and 11 people in Irkutsk, both in Siberia.
Moscow’s main Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin was cordoned off, with dozens of police vans and cars in the city centre, an AFP correspondent reported.
Earlier Wednesday, two Navalny aides, Lyubov Sobol and Kira Yarmysh, were detained by police in the Russian capital.
Navalny barely survived a poisoning attack with the Novichok nerve agent last year he blames on the Kremlin, a claim Putin has dismissed. He returned to Russia in January after months recovering in Germany and was jailed on arrival.
Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a-half years on old fraud charges his supporters say were politically motivated and has been serving time in a penal colony about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow.
He launched a hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment in prison on March 31, and his doctors said this weekend that he could die at “any minute”.