More than 1,500 people have been arrested across Russia as protesters staged rallies in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The Putin critic called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend when he returned to Moscow for the first time since being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.
Tens of thousands of protesters defied warnings from authorities and braved the cold, taking to the streets to demand the release of the anti-Putin campaigner.
Police were seen detaining protesters and bundling them into vans in Moscow, where Reuters estimated roughly 40,000 people had gathered.
Russian authorities insisted the crowds numbered only 4,000, issuing a sarcastic response to Reuters’ crowd estimates.
“Why not just immediately say 4 million?,” it quipped on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Video footage showed riot police chasing a group of protesters down the street in Vladivostok, while demonstrators in Khabarovsk braved temperatures of around -14 degrees celsius, taking to the streets chanting “Shame!” and “Bandits!”
Several of Navalny’s close allies, including his spokeswoman, were arrested in the run-up to today’s demonstrations.
The UK government today condemned the Kremlin’s crackdown on protesters, urging Russia to respect international human rights commitments.
“We are deeply concerned by the detention of peaceful protesters and continue to monitor the situation closely,” a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said.
“We urge the Russian government to respect and comply with its international commitments on human rights, and release citizens detained during peaceful demonstrations.”
Navalny, a former lawyer who has accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder, could face years in prison over charges he describes as trumped up. Putin has denied involvement.
Western leaders have called for Navalny’s release, with foreign secretary Dominic Raab this week branding his arrest “appalling”.
“Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he said.
Navalny’s team has galvanised support ahead of the protests, releasing a video investigation that purports to show Putin’s $1bn palace on the Black Sea.
The video, which claims the sprawling complex boasts a casino, an underground ice hockey complex and a vineyard, has been viewed 65m times.