Moscow, Russian Federation, Aug 1 – Russian investigators said Thursday they had detained five people as part of a criminal probe into mass unrest, in an apparent attempt to crush a wave of peaceful protests demanding fair elections.
The investigation into mass unrest, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and violence against police, came after thousands of people protested in Moscow last week against the exclusion of opposition candidates from local elections.
Authorities launched the clampdown as opposition politicians are fighting to get on the ballot for a Moscow parliament election in September amid anger over worsening living standards which has dented President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings.
The investigators said Thursday more than 10 people had been identified who helped organise and participated in an unauthorised rally in central Moscow on Saturday.
Five participants have been detained including Alexei Minyaylo, a well-known activist and aide to Lyubov Sobol, an independent politician who has fought to get on the ballot.
– ‘We will win’ –
Minyaylo’s apartment was searched in the middle of the night, he said in a Facebook post.
“Let them come, I am not afraid,” he said ahead of his detention, urging Muscovites to continue protesting. “We will win.”
Sobol, 31, said she considered Minyaylo’s arrest pressure against her. “I will not give up and will continue to stand for our rights,” she said on Twitter.
Sobol, who is a close ally of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, has been refusing food for 19 days to protest her exclusion from the September election.
Minyaylo has been on hunger strike in solidarity with her.
Also on Thursday, the general director of liberal channel TV Rain, Natalia Sindeeva, said tax authorities had launched a probe into the media outlet.
TV Rain removed its paywall to give Russians access to live coverage of the July 27 protest and other news.
Almost 1,400 people were arrested on Saturday.
Nearly all prominent opposition leaders and many independent would-be candidates were detained ahead of the rally and jailed for up to 30 days, but many of the others have since been released.
The opposition denies widespread unrest, insisting that the rally was peaceful and that police used violence against protesters, not the other way around.
– Corruption accusation –
The probes are part of the largest crackdown on dissenters since 2012, when thousands of people protested against Putin’s return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
More than 30 people were prosecuted in connection with the 2012 clashes and most of them were sentenced to prison terms of between two to three years on average.
This week, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin thanked riot police for breaking up the rally and accused the opposition of seeking to stage a power grab.
“This is not Zimbabwe,” he added.
In a new investigation, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund on Thursday accused the Moscow mayor’s first deputy of corruption.
The report alleged that Natalia Sergunina, 40, had sold Moscow property at knock-down prices to her close relatives.
According to the Anti-Corruption Fund, Sergunina’s family now controls property worth 6.5 billion rubles ($101 million) including a two-million-euro mansion in Vienna.
There was no immediate comment from Sergunina or the mayor’s office.
Sobol has called on Russians to take part in a peaceful “walk” in central Moscow on Saturday.
More than 17,000 people on Facebook have expressed interest in that rally despite the threat of new violence.
Liberal newspaper Vedomosti said that pressing ahead with the crackdown now would be more dangerous for the authorities than in 2012 as more people were prepared to take part in protests.
The newspaper urged officials to allow opposition candidates to run in the September 8 polls to defuse the political crisis.