The Russian police on Saturday detained more than 3,000 people, and used force to break up rallies as as tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Reuters reported. The activist’s wife Yulia Navalnaya was briefly detained at a rally before being released.

Navalny was arrested on January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent, which he alleges was done by the government of President Vladimir Putin. The opposition leader had given a call to his supporters to protest after he was immediately taken into custody from an airport in Moscow.

The 44-year-old was accused of flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement in a case that could see Navalny jailed for three-and-a-half years. The activist maintained that the charges against him are trumped-up.

Saturday’s protests took place on an unprecedented geographic scale, spanning more than 100 cities across Russia, according to AFP. Previous large-scale opposition demonstrations – held in 2012 and 2019 – were largely centralised in Moscow.

At least 40,000 people joined a rally in central Moscow, as per Reuters estimate. But Russia’s interior ministry put the number of protestors at 4,000.

Authorities had warned people to stay away from the demonstrations, citing the risk of catching Covid-19, as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event. But protestors defied the ban. Some protestors chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”

In at least one instance, demonstrators gathered in temperatures below -50 Celsius to protest. Leonid Volkov, an ally of Navalny, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called “the clutches of his killers”.

The OVD-Info, a non-governmental organisation that monitors rallies, said at least 3,060 people had been detained across Russia, a number likely to rise. Of these, 1,099 were detained in Moscow and 386 in St Petersburg, it added. Some of Navalny’s political allies were detained in the days before the protest, others were held on Saturday.

Some protestors marched on the prison, where police were waiting to arrest them. Images of protestors with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.

Outages on mobile phone and internet services were also reported in several parts of the country, the monitoring site Downdetector showed, according to Reuters. There was, however, no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously called the protests illegal and the work of “provocateurs”.

US condemns action against protestors

The United States condemned what it described as “harsh tactics” used against protestors and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.

“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

The US Embassy in Russia also rebuked the Russian authorities after some journalists covering the protests were detained in Moscow. “Russian authorities arresting peaceful protesters, journalists - appears to be a concerted campaign to suppress free speech, peaceful assembly,” spokesperson Rebecca Ross said on Twitter.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that he deplored the authorities “disproportionate use of force”.

Meanwhile, Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, condemned the “use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists”.