MOSCOW (Reuters) – Before he returned to Russia, opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his supporters had anticipated he would be arrested and planned to force the Kremlin to release him by staging repeated protests, a close ally has said.

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was detained on Sunday after flying home for the first time since being poisoned with what the West says was a military-grade nerve agent that Navalny says was applied to his underpants by state security agents.

The 44-year-old lawyer, now in a notorious Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he says are all trumped up, accuses Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a U.S.-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.

Navalny’s allies plan nationwide protests on Saturday to try to force the Kremlin to order his release, a high-stakes test of his support in the depths of winter during a pandemic.

Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny ally, told Reuters that the opposition plan also involves releasing video investigations into Putin and his allies, such as one on Tuesday about an opulent palace they alleged belonged to Putin, which the Kremlin denied. It has been watched 53 million times online.

“We know the Kremlin fears mass demonstrations,” Volkov said. “We know the Kremlin has never failed in recent years to bend one way or the other if the demonstrations were powerful and strong enough.”

Two sources close to the Kremlin however believe Navalny is becoming a threat and that he will probably be kept in jail even if there are prolonged protests in his support.

The Kremlin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Volkov and others are banking on outrage over Navalny’s treatment and the palace video. They are also trying to exploit what opinion polls show is public frustration over falling wages and pandemic-fuelled economic pain.

But the government has introduced tougher penalties for protests, while 68-year-old Putin looks unassailable with an approval rating of more than 60%. Read More

By Ian Dei

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