The Kremlin has said that thousands of arrests at protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were a necessary response to the rallies.
Asked about the harsh treatment of thousands of detainees, who spent many hours on police buses and were put in overcrowded cells, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that they have to bear responsibility for joining the unsanctioned protests.
“The situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unlawful actions,” Mr Peskov said in a call with reporters.
Massive protests erupted after Mr Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner, was arrested on January 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from 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.
A Moscow court sentenced Mr Navalny two years and eight months in prison on Tuesday, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany, a ruling that caused international outrage and triggered new protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Following Mr Navalny’s arrest, authorities have moved swiftly to silence and isolate his allies.
Last week, a Moscow court put his brother, Oleg, top associate Lyubov Sobol and several other key allies under house arrest — without access to the internet — for two months as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during protests.
On Thursday, Ms Sobol was formally charged with the incitement of violation of sanitary regulations by organising protests.
Protests 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 to the protest, police arrested over 10,000 participants across Russia and beat up scores of them, according to the OVD-Info group monitoring arrests.
Many detainees had to spend hours on police buses after detention facilities in Moscow and St Petersburg quickly ran out of space, or were cramped into cells intended to accommodate far fewer inmates.
Mr Peskov said that Russia will not listen to Western criticism of Mr Navalny’s sentencing and police action against protesters.