Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has urged Russians to overcome their fear and “free” the country from a “bunch of thieves” in a message from his prison cell.
Mr Navalny, who was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison earlier this week, said in a statement posted on his Instagram account that “iron doors slammed behind my back with a deafening sound, but I feel like a free man because I feel confident I’m right and thanks to support from you and my family”.
Mr Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption campaigner who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested on January 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.
He said his imprisonment was “Putin’s personal revenge” for surviving and exposing the assassination plot.
“But even more than that, it’s a message from Putin and his friends to the entire country: ‘Did you see what we can do? We spit on laws and steamroll anyone who dares to challenge us. We are the law.’”
Protests against Mr 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 Mr Putin’s rule in years.
In a no-holds-barred response, police arrested over 10,000 protest participants across Russia and beat scores, according to arrest-monitoring group OVD-Info.
After a long wait, they were crammed into overcrowded jail cells with no precautions to prevent them from being infected with the coronavirus.
Mr Navalny’s associate Maria Pevchikh tweeted a picture of a detention facility, where 28 people were packed into one cell intended for eight, ridiculing the charges against Mr Navalny’s allies 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 were not enough beds and inmates took turns to get a nap.
“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement. It was provoked by participants in unsanctioned actions,” Mr Peskov said during a call with reporters.
“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.”
He said that Russia will not listen to Western criticism of Mr 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,” Mr Peskov said.