Russian State Networks Downplay Arrest of Putin Critic Alexei Navalny

Marx Film
Alexei Navalny seen in a still from 'The Term'

Live TV and Internet channels capture first mass protest in three years as state channels stay low-key

Prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested Tuesday night after breaking house arrest to attend an unsanctioned rally called to protest his conviction earlier in the day on fraud charges.

Navalny, who was a key figure in mass protests against President Vladimir Putin's rule three years ago, was found guilty of fraud Tuesday morning in a case he has dismissed as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress dissidence.

The lawyer and anticorruption campaigner, who came in second in the Moscow mayoral elections last year, polling 27 percent of votes cast, had earlier been given a suspended sentence of three and half years in a complex $513,000 fraud case. His younger brother Oleg was sentenced to serve the same term in a prison colony, prompting outrage among Navalny's supporters. Navalny's house arrest relates to a previous case.

Thousands of people streamed into the center of Moscow to rally at Manezh Square, an area at the base of the Kremlin walls adjacent to Red Square, in the heart of the Russian capital's commercial district and Tverskaya Street (known as Gorky Street in Soviet times).

Earlier a new video featuring Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of punk rock and opposition group Pussy Riot had been posted urging people to attend the anti-Kremlin rally.

Navalny tweeted a photo of himself as he rode the Moscow metro (subway) to the protest, remarking in Russian: "House arrest — yes. But today I really want to be with you. That's why I'm going to #Manezhka."

He was mobbed by supporters as he walked down Tverskaya Street towards the square, captured live by Newscaster.tv, a Russian live Internet service that advertises itself as a provider of "live broadcasts of the most striking and unexpected events in Moscow."

Watched by around 69,000 viewers on YouTube, the live feed began shortly before 7 p.m. Moscow time and ran until riot police had cleared the square using controversial kettling tactics frequently employed in the West, particularly by London's Metropolitan police.

State news broadcasters downplayed the story. Channel One, Russia's major state broadcaster lead its 9 p.m. newscast with the developments in the AirAsia crash before continuing with a dry report of President Vladimir Putin's meeting with a regional leader to discuss economic developments. Another key state channel, Rossiya 24 ran a report headlined "A hundred arrested at Manezh Square for violations." It reported Navalny's arrest and said around 1,500 of his supporters had turned out for the prohibited rally.

Navalny's arrest was reported by Echo of Moscow radio station and Internet-based independent channel Dozhd TV (TV Rain). The opposition figure was, they said, returned to house arrest by police. Earlier in the day Navalny had condemned the sentence on his brother, remarking: "The authorities are torturing and destroying relatives of their political opponents. This regime doesn’t deserve to exist, it must be destroyed."

International news services, including the BBC, ran stories from Moscow, but by 9:30 p.m. local time, the center of the city was returning to relative normal: Newscaster.tv used drone-mounted cameras to show how empty Manezh Square was before it shut down its live feed after three hours of transmissions.

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