The Kremlin has attempted to play down the jailing of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, saying that his 32-month imprisonment will have not have “significant influence” on Russian politics or lead to a mass protest movement similar to the one in neighbouring Belarus.
Meanwhile, protesters detained at recent rallies in support of Navalny have complained of inhumane conditions as police hold them in overcrowded jails or on buses in subzero temperatures days after their arrest.
Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson told reporters on Wednesday that Putin had not reacted to Navalny’s speech in a Moscow courtroom, where he said the Russian leader would go down in history as “Vladimir Putin, the poisoner of underpants”.
“I don’t think that the convict you’ve mentioned can speak about the place Putin will occupy in history,” said Dmitri Peskov, the spokesperson. “Absolutely not. This is for the people of the country to say.”
He went on to say that Putin was too busy with issues such as mortgages that affect “millions and millions of Russians” to follow the Navalny case. It came to a dramatic conclusion on Tuesday evening as the opposition leader was jailed for allegedly violating his parole.
Red Square was closed and Moscow streets were cordoned off before the decision, as thousands of riot police were deployed across the Russian capital to prevent unrest. Still, the Kremlin claims Putin has taken little interest in the case in an apparent effort to downplay Navalny’s importance to the Russian public.
“It would be stupid if Putin, instead of [his normal work], listened to speeches by convicts or thought about his place in history,” Peskov said.
Peskov did address Tuesday’s protests against the Navalny ruling, defending a brutal crackdown by armoured riot police wielding batons that led to more than 1,150 arrests in Moscow alone.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R.Politik, said that the harsh sentence against Navalny was part of a campaign to “demonstrate that no move aimed against the security services would remain unpunished”.
She said the government was ready to weather the backlash to Navalny’s imprisonment, whether it be international condemnation or street demonstrations in Russia.
“Make no mistake, the Kremlin is not terribly afraid of protests,” she said.
A total of 1,438 people were arrested across the country, the OVD-Info monitor reported, with many sent to jails already overcrowded with protesters detained over the last two weeks.
In one case, protesters detained at a rally on Sunday released a video two days later saying they were being held by police in a bus in -11C temperatures because there was no space at a local jail for illegal immigrants that was being used to help process the thousands of detainees.
“For the last nine hours we’ve been held in a bus where we’re being forced to remain standing,” one man said in a video posted to the internet. “We don’t have water. We aren’t taken to the toilets. There are dozens of other [buses] with detainees being held here as well.”
Peskov said that cases of excessive violence by police should be investigated, but also that the harsh measures employed by the police at the rallies were justified.
“There should be no unsanctioned protest activity,” he said. “Obviously, this kind of activity should be put a stop to quite firmly.”
Videos from the protests on Tuesday showed police beating unarmed protesters with their hands up and journalists, including a camera operator in a yellow press bib struck twice in the head by a helmeted riot police officer. Police said they had opened an investigation into the incident.