Russian police have detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow moments after he appeared at a rally to urge voters to boycott what he said would be a rigged presidential election on March 18.
Video footage posted on social media showed Mr Navalny appearing on Moscow’s main thoroughfare, a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, to join several hundred supporters taking part in the nationwide protest, which authorities had said was illegal.
He had only walked a short distance when he was surrounded by helmet-clad police officers.
They wrestled him to the ground on the pavement, and then dragged him feet first into the patrol wagon, the video footage showed.
Mr Navalny’s personal Twitter feed carried a post to his followers saying he had been arrested.
“That does not matter. Come to Tverskaya,” the post said.
Mr Navalny was taken to a police precinct in central Moscow, Mr Navalny’s website reported.
He would be charged with violating laws on holding demonstrations, police said in a statement.
Mr Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Reuters her client had been released from police custody without charge but is scheduled to face court at a later date.
The maximum penalty he faces for the offence is 30 days in jail.
Mr Navalny has been barred from running in the March 18 election, which polls show incumbent president Vladimir Putin is on track to easily win.
Though Mr Navalny said he knew Mr Putin would be re-elected, his boycott campaign was aimed at lowering voter turnout to try to take the shine off a Putin win.
The Kremlin said the election will be fair. They say Mr Navalny and his supporters had minimal support and were irresponsibly trying to foment social anger which could lead to turmoil.
On Sunday, about 1,500 protesters converged at Manezh Square, adjacent to the Kremlin, but were blocked from getting any further by metal barriers and dozens of police in riot gear.
The crowd split up and headed off in several different directions, with the numbers thinning out as night fell.
Hundreds of people also protested in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-biggest city, in Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains, and other major centres.
But Mr Navalny, who said he had faced a campaign of harassment from the authorities, had struggled to mobilise the same numbers in the two nationwide protests he has called since the breakthrough protest in June.
By 5:00pm local time, police had detained 243 protesters nationwide, according to OVD-Info, a non-governmental group that tracks the arrests.
Earlier on Sunday, police forced their way into Mr Navalny’s campaign headquarters using power tools, citing reports of a bomb threat, an online feed run by Mr Navalny’s supporters showed.
Police shut down a TV studio at the office that had been broadcasting online news bulletins, but another studio in a different location continued to operate.
Police also detained six of Mr Navalny’s supporters at the Moscow studio, OVD-Info said.
Crowds of young people gathered in the main square of the port of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East as speakers called the election, which polls showed incumbent Vladimir Putin should easily win, a farce.
“I will go to the elections when there’s a choice,” read one placard in Vladivostok, a reference to the fact that Mr Navalny has been barred from running over what he says is a trumped-up suspended prison sentence.
“Putin is gobbling up Russia’s future,” read another.
Other protests took place in Novosibirsk, Kurgan, Omsk, Magadan, Kemerovo and Yakutsk.
Mr Navalny’s supporters said they expected thousands of people to take part in similar demonstrations in 118 towns and cities.
“Your own life is at stake,” Mr Navalny, who organised the boycott protests, said in a pre-protest video.
“How many more years to do you want to live with these thieves, bigots and creeps?”
Police warned beforehand they would harshly suppress any illegal protest activity and officials refused to authorise events in Moscow and St Petersburg, the country’s two biggest cities, raising the possibility of possible violence.
Mr Navalny, a lawyer who has campaigned against official corruption, was barred from running in the election by the central election commission in December.
The United States and the EU criticised the decision.
Mr Putin, who has dominated the Russian political landscape for the past 18 years, described US criticism of the election commission’s decision as crude interference in Russia’s internal affairs and suggested Mr Navalny was Washington’s pick for the presidency.
Polls show Mr Navalny had scant chance of beating Mr Putin, but Mr Navalny says the system is rigged against political opponents like himself, which makes polls meaningless.
While there is little suspense about the outcome of the election, there is keen interest in voter turnout.
Media reports say the Kremlin wants to ensure Mr Putin is re-elected