(MOSCOW) — Hundreds of people have been arrested in a crackdown in Russia after thousands gathered for massive anti-corruption protests Sunday in the nation's capital, and other demonstrations were held in dozens of cities across the country.
Between 7,000 and 30,000 people demonstrated in Moscow, and up to 10,000 in Saint Petersburg in Russia's largest anti-government gatherings since at least 2012.
Huge crowds gathered in Moscow's Pushkin Square for a protest against the Russian government, and about 500 people were arrested in the wake of the protests, according to Interfax, a privately-held, independent Russian news agency. Russian human rights group OVD-info reported that more than 700 people were detained in Moscow, 34 in St. Petersburg, and between 80 and 100 in other cities.
Independent radio station Ekho Moskvy estimated that unsanctioned rallies in 82 cities and towns assembled 60,000 opposition supporters, in what may be the biggest anti-Kremlin protest since 2008.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has challenged President Vladimir Putin's rule on an anti-corruption platform, appeared in a Moscow court Monday as the Kremlin spoke out for the first time on the mass anti-government protests Sunday that rocked the country, saying the demonstrations were based on "provocations and lies."
Navalny was fined 20,000 rubles (roughly $350) and given a 15-day jail sentence for violating public meeting rules and disobeying police.
Navalny was one of hundreds of people arrested in a crackdown after thousands protested in the nation's capital and in other cities across Russia.
The deputy director of Navalny's organization, the Fund for Combatting Corruption (FBK), which had called for the protests, said the organization's offices had also been raided by police.
The FBK conducts investigations into senior Russian officials and releases its findings in slick, irreverent videos. The protest Sunday was organized to demand that Russian authorities look into the fund's latest investigation, released this month, which alleged that Russian prime minister and ex-president Dmitry Medvdev had amassed a massive property empire using a corrupt scheme based on a network of charities.
The investigation alleged Medvedev had built himself vast mansions, bought vineyards and yachts worth as much as a $1 billion. The video laying out the investigation has been watched by at least 9 million people. Authorities have ignored the claims and refused to investigate.
The allegations around Medvedev appear to have struck a chord in Russia, as pressure on freedom of expression has reached a peak at the same time people's living standards have fallen.
The State Department criticized the arrests, and called on Russia to immediately release all the demonstrators who had been detained.
"The United States strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia on Sunday," acting spokesman Mark Toner said. "Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values. We were troubled to hear of the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny upon arrival at the demonstration, as well as the police raids on the anti-corruption organization he heads."
The European Union has called on Russia to “release without delay” what it called peaceful protesters.
The demonstrations in Russia followed protests in neighboring Belarus on Saturday against that country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the small, landlocked country since 1994.
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