MOSCOW – Thousands of supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny crowded into central Moscow on Wednesday as part of nationwide demonstrations calling for his freedom as his health reportedly is in severe decline while on a hunger strike.
Over 400 people were arrested across the country in connection with the protests, according to a human rights group that monitors political repression. Many were seized before the protests even began. Navalny's team called for the unsanctioned demonstrations after weekend reports that his health is deteriorating.
“The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests,” Vladimir Ashurkov, a close Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told The Associated Press. “Alexei's health has sharply deteriorated, and he is in a rather critical condition. Doctors are saying that judging by his test (results), he should be admitted into intensive care.”
Navalny's organization called for the Moscow protesters to assemble on Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls, but police blocked it off. Instead, a large crowd gathered at the nearby Russian State Library and another lined Tverskaya Street, a main avenue that leads to the square.
In St. Petersburg, police blocked off Palace Square, the vast space outside the Hermitage museum and protesters instead crowded along nearby Nevsky Prospekt.
There were no comprehensive reports of turnout throughout the country and it was unclear if the demonstrations would match the size and intensity of nationwide protests that broke out in January after Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent, was arrested.