Seven Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates were convicted Thursday on charges of organizing and participating in an unlawful assembly during massive anti-government protests in 2019 that triggered a crackdown on dissent.
The seven include media tycoon and founder of the Apple Daily tabloid Jimmy Lai, as well as 82-year-old Martin Lee, a veteran of the city’s democracy movement. Lai had already been held without bail on other charges related to his pro-democracy activities.
They were convicted for their involvement in a protest held on Aug. 18, 2019. Organizers said that 1.7 million people marched that day in opposition to a proposed bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
The activists, apart from those who have been remanded in custody on other charges, were granted bail on condition they do not leave Hong Kong and must hand in all their travel documents.
They will next appear in court on April 16, where mitigation pleas will be heard before sentences are handed down. Taking part in an unlawful assembly or a riot in Hong Kong can result in a maximum sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment for serious offences.
Ahead of the trial, supporters and some of the defendants gathered outside the court, shouting “Oppose political persecution” and “Five demands, not one less,” in reference to demands by democracy supporters that include amnesty for those arrested in the protests as well as universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous territory.
‘We believe in the people of Hong Kong’
“So on this day, in a very difficult situation in Hong Kong, political retaliation is on us,” Lee Cheuk-yan, one of the defendants, said ahead of the court session.
“We will still march on no matter what lies in the future. We believe in the people of Hong Kong, in our brothers and sisters in our struggle, and the victory is ours if the people of Hong Kong are persistent,” he said.
Previously, two other defendants — former pro-democracy lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung — had pleaded guilty to organizing and taking part in an unauthorized assembly.
Hong Kong was rocked by months of protests in the second half of 2019, sparked by the extradition bill. The bill was eventually withdrawn, but the protests expanded to include full democracy and other demands and at times descended into violence between demonstrators and police.
In the aftermath of the protests, Beijing took a tough stance on dissent, imposing a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong and approving electoral reforms that would reduce public participation in elections and exclude critics from running for the city’s legislature.
China had pledged to allow the city to retain freedoms not permitted elsewhere in the country for 50 years when it took Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997, but its recent steps are seen as a betrayal.
Thousands of Indian farmers blocked a massive expressway on the edges of New Delhi on Saturday to mark the 100th day of protests against agricultural laws they say will devastate their income.
Farmers stood on tractors and waved colourful flags while their leaders chanted slogans via a loudspeaker atop a makeshift stage.
Thousands of them have hunkered down outside New Delhi’s borders since late November to voice their anger against three laws passed by India’s Parliament last year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the laws are necessary to modernize agriculture, but farmers say they will leave them poorer and at the mercy of big corporations.
What’s happening now?
Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or Joint Farmers’ Front, said the blockade would last five hours.
“It is not our hobby to block roads, but the government is not listening to us. What can we do?” said Satnam Singh, a member of the group.
The farmers have remained undeterred even after violence erupted on Jan. 26 during clashes with police that left one protester dead and hundreds injured. But they could soon run into problems.
WATCH | Tensions in January
For 100 days, Karnal Singh has lived inside the back of a trailer along a vast stretch of arterial highway that connects India’s north with New Delhi. He camped outside the capital when it was under the grip of winter and smog. Now, the city is bracing for scorching summer temperatures that can hit 45 C.
But Singh, like many other farmers, is unfazed and plans to stay until the laws are completely withdrawn.
“We are not going anywhere and will fight till the end,” Singh, 60, said on Friday, as he sat cross-legged inside a makeshift shelter in the back of his truck.
The mood at the Singhu border, one of the protest sites, was boisterous on Friday, with many farmers settling into their surroundings for the long haul.
Huge soup kitchens that feed thousands daily were still running. Farmers thronged both sides of the highway, and hundreds of trucks have been turned into rooms, fitted with water coolers in preparation for the summer. Electric fans and air conditioners are also being installed in some trailers.
Protests expected to continue during harvest season
Farmers say the protests will spread across the country soon. The government, however, is hoping many of them will return home once India’s major harvesting season begins at the end of the month.
Karanbir Singh dismissed such concerns. He said their community, including friends and neighbours back in the villages, would tend to farms while he and others carried on with the protests.
“We’ll help each other to make sure no farm goes unharvested,” Singh said.
But not all farmers are against the laws. Pawan Kumar, a fruit and vegetable grower and ardent Modi supporter, said he was ready to give them a chance.
“If they [the laws] turn out to not benefit us, then we will protest again,” he said. “We will jam roads and make that protest even bigger. Then more common people, even workers, will join. But if they turn out to be beneficial for us, we will keep them.”
Support in Canada for farmers
The farmers have drawn support for their cause from far outside of India’s borders, including in Canada.
Multiple rounds of talks between the government and farmers have failed to end the stalemate. The farmers have rejected an offer from the government to put the laws on hold for 18 months, saying they want a complete repeal.
The legislation is not clear on whether the government will continue to guarantee prices for certain essential crops — a system that was introduced in the 1960s to help India shore up its food reserves and prevent shortages.
Farmers also fear that the legislation signals the government is moving away from a system in which an overwhelming majority of farmers sell only to government-sanctioned marketplaces.
They worry this will leave them at the mercy of corporations that will have no legal obligation to pay them the guaranteed price anymore.
Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and appeared to use lethal force on Sunday as they intensified their efforts to break up protests a month after the military staged a coup. At least four people were reportedly killed.
There were reports of gunfire as police in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, fired tear gas and water cannons while trying to clear the streets of demonstrators demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power. Photos of shell casings from live ammunition used in assault rifles were posted on social media.
Reports on social media identified by name one young man believed to have been killed in Yangon. His body was shown in photos and videos lying on a sidewalk until other protesters were able to carry him away.
A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar, where local media reported that at least three people were killed during a protest march. The fatalities could not immediately be independently confirmed, though photos posted on social media showed a wounded man in the care of medical personnel, and later laid out in a bed under a blanket with flowers placed on top.
Confirming reports of protesters’ deaths has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources.
Prior to Sunday, there had been eight confirmed reports of killings linked to the army’s takeover, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.
The Feb. 1 coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her and President Win Myint, as well as other top members of Suu Kyi’s government.
Sunday’s violence erupted in the early morning when medical students were marching in Yangon’s streets near the Hledan Center intersection, which has become the gathering point for protesters who then fan out to other parts of the city.
Videos and photos showed protesters running away as police charged at them, and residents setting up makeshift roadblocks to slow their advance. Some protesters managed to throw tear gas cannisters back at police. Nearby, residents were pleading with police to release those they picked up from the street and shoved into police trucks to be taken away. Dozens or more were believed to have been detained.
Demonstrators regrouped later Sunday and security forces continued to chase them in several neighbourhoods.
There was no immediate word on Yangon casualties. Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the streets and there were what appeared to be smoke grenades thrown into the crowds.
“The Myanmar security forces’ clear escalation in use of lethal force in multiple towns and cities across the country in response to mostly peaceful anti-coup protesters is outrageous and unacceptable, and must be immediately halted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests and lethal force can only be used to protect life or prevent serious injury.”
“The world is watching the actions of the Myanmar military junta, and will hold them accountable,” he said.
On Saturday, security forces began employing rougher tactics, taking preemptive actions to break up protests and making scores, if not hundreds, of arrests. Greater numbers of soldiers have also joined police. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, as of Saturday, 854 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in relation to the coup, and 771 were being detained or sought for arrest. The group said that while it had documented 75 new arrests, it understood that hundreds of other people were also picked up Saturday in Yangon and elsewhere.
MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, broadcast an announcement Saturday night from the Foreign Ministry that the country’s ambassador to the United Nations had been fired because he had abused his power and misbehaved by failing to follow the instructions of the government and “betraying” it.
Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had declared in an emotional speech Friday at the UN General Assembly in New York that he represented Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” and supported the struggle against military rule.
He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime. He also called for stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.
WATCH | From The National on Feb. 22 — Widespread strikes in Myanmar:
Protests and strikes in Myanmar against the military government following a coup three weeks ago have become so widespread the regime is using soldiers to try to fill workers’ jobs. People are demanding the elected leaders, including Aung San Su Kyi, be released from detention and their democracy be restored. 2:02
The Canadian Embassy in Yangon issued a statement on Sunday saying it is “appalled” by the increased use of force against the protesters.
“We unequivocally condemn any use of force by security forces against unarmed protesters, as well as ongoing arrests and detentions of protesters, politicians, civil servants, civil society activists, journalists and pro-democracy leaders.” the embassy said.
It called on Myanmar’s military and police to immediately cease “all attacks, intimidation and threats against protesters, and to release those detained.”
Myanmar’s new military rulers on Monday signalled their intention to crack down on opponents of their takeover, issuing decrees that effectively banned peaceful public protests in the country’s two biggest cities.
The restrictions were ordered after police fired water cannons at hundreds of protesters in the capital, Naypyitaw, who were demanding the military hand power back to elected officials. It was just one of many demonstrations around the country.
Rallies and gatherings of more than five people, along with motorized processions, were banned, and an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew was imposed for areas of Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s first- and second-biggest cities, where thousands of people have been demonstrating since Saturday.
Protesters in Yangon rallied Monday at a major downtown intersection raising three-finger salutes that are symbols of resistance and carrying placards saying, “Reject the military coup” and “Justice for Myanmar.”
There were also demonstrations in towns in the north, southeast and east of the country.
The decrees enabling the new restrictive measures were issued on a township-by-township basis, and were expected to be extended to other areas as well. They say they were issued in response to people carrying out unlawful actions that harm the rule of law, a reference to the protests.
The growing defiance was striking in a country where past demonstrations have been met with deadly force. That resistance was happening in Naypyitaw, whose population includes many civil servants and their families, spoke to the level of anger among people who had only begun to taste democracy in recent years after five decades of military rule.
“We do not want the military junta,” said Daw Moe, a protester in Yangon. “We never ever wanted this junta. Nobody wants it. All the people are ready to fight them.”
‘Democracy can be destroyed’
The coup came the day newly elected lawmakers were supposed to take their seats in Parliament after November elections. The generals have said that vote was marred by fraud — though the country’s election commission has dismissed that claim.
State media for the first time on Monday made reference to the protests, claiming they were endangering the country’s stability.
“Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline,” declared a statement from the Ministry of Information, read on state television station MRTV. “We will have to take legal actions to prevent acts that are violating state stability, public safety and the rule of law.”
However, the military commander who led the coup and is now Myanmar’s leader made no mention of the unrest in a 20-minute televised speech Monday night, his first to the public since the takeover.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing instead repeated the claims about voting fraud that have been the justification for the military’s takeover, allegations that were refuted by the state election commission. He added that his junta would hold new elections as promised in a year and hand over power to the winners, and explained the junta’s intended policies for COVID-19 control and the economy.
The growing protests recall previous movements in the Southeast Asian country’s long and bloody struggle for democracy. On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters rallied at Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, which was a focal point of demonstrations against military rule during a massive 1988 uprising and again during a 2007 revolt led by Buddhist monks. The military used deadly force to end both of those uprisings. Aside from a few officers, soldiers have not been in the streets at protests this past week.
Photos of the standoff in Naypyitaw on Monday showed a vast crowd of protesters hemmed in on several sides by large numbers of police and police vehicles. Officers there trained a water cannon on the crowd, which was gathered near a giant statue of Aung San, who led the country’s 1940s fight for independence from Britain and is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected leader who was deposed by last week’s takeover.
Suu Kyi — who became an international symbol of the country’s fight for freedom while detained in her home for 15 years and earned the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts — is now back under house arrest.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent watchdog group, says 165 people, mostly politicians, had been detained since the Feb. 1 coup, with just 13 released.
One foreigner has been confirmed held by the authorities, Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University who was an adviser to Suu Kyi’s government. He was detained Saturday under unclear circumstances.
A statement from the office of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said he was being provided with consular support and described him as “a highly regarded adviser, member of the academic community” who should immediately be released.
As enthusiastic crowds of tens of thousands marched through the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city on Sunday to protest last week’s coup ousting Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, their spirits were lifted by the return of internet service that had been blocked a day earlier.
Separate protests that began in various parts of Yangon converged at Sule Pagoda, situated in the centre of a roundabout in the city’s downtown area. Protesters chanted “Long live Mother Suu” and “Down with military dictatorship.” Protesters in other parts of the country echoed their calls.
Authorities had cut access to the internet as the protests grew Saturday, fanning fears of a complete information blackout. On Sunday afternoon, however, internet users in Yangon reported that data access on their mobile phones had suddenly been restored.
The demonstrators are seeking to roll back last Monday’s seizure of power by the military and demanding the release from detention of Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted leader, and other top figures from her National League for Democracy party.
The military has accused Suu Kyi’s government of failing to act on its complaints that last November’s election was marred by fraud, although the election commission said it had found no evidence to support the claims.
The growing protests are a sharp reminder of the long and bloody struggle for democracy in a country that the military ruled directly for more than five decades before loosening its grip in 2012. Suu Kyi’s government, which won a landslide election in 2015, was the first led by civilians in decades, but it faced a number of curbs to its power under a military-drafted constitution.
During Myanmar’s years of isolation under military rule, the golden-domed Sule Pagoda served as a rallying point for political protests calling for democracy, most notably during a massive 1988 uprising and again during a 2007 revolt led by Buddhist monks.
The military used deadly force to end both of those uprisings, with estimates of hundreds if not thousands killed in 1988. While riot police have been sent to watch the protests this past week, soldiers have been absent and there have been no reports of clashes.
Several videos posted online Sunday that were said to be from the town of Myawaddy, on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, showed police shooting into the air in an evident effort to disperse a crowd. There were no signs of panic and no reports of injuries.
Showing little fear, protest crowds have grown bigger and bolder in recent days, while remaining non-violent in support of a call by Suu Kyi’s party and its allies for civil disobedience.
In one of Sunday’s gatherings, at least 2,000 labour union and student activists and members of the public gathered at a major intersection near Yangon University. They marched along a main road, snarling traffic. Drivers honked their horns in support.
Police in riot gear blocked the main entrance to the university. Two water cannon trucks were parked nearby.
The mostly young protesters held placards calling for freedom for Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who were put under house arrest and charged with minor offences, seen by many as providing a legal veneer for their detention.
“We just want to show this current generation how the older generation fights this crisis, by heeding the guideline of Mother Suu, which is to be honest, transparent and peaceful,” said 46-year-old protester Htain Linn Aung. “We don’t want a military dictator. Let the dictator fail.”
Reports on social media and by some Myanmar news services said demonstrations were taking place in other parts of the country as well, with a particularly large crowd in the central city of Mandalay, where there was also a motorbike procession in which hundreds took part, constantly beeping their horns.
Saturday had seen the size of street protests grow from the hundreds to the thousands, but it also saw the authorities cut most access to the internet. Holes in the military’s firewall allowed some news to trickle out, but it also fanned fears of a complete information blackout.
WATCH | Myanmar coup sparks international condemnation, concern for Rohingya:
The military has seized power in Myanmar and detained Aung San Suu Kyi as well as other elected officials, sparking international concern for the Rohingya minority, many of whom fled past military crackdowns. 1:58
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were earlier ordered blocked but had remained partially accessible. Social media platforms have been major sources of independent news as well as organizing tools for protests.
Social media still affected, monitoring service says
NetBlocks, a London-based service that tracks internet disruptions and shutdowns, confirmed that there had been a partial restoration of internet connectivity on Sunday, but it noted that it might be temporary and social media remained blocked.
The communication blockade was a stark reminder of the progress Myanmar is in danger of losing. During Myanmar’s decades of military rule, the country was internationally isolated and communication with the outside world strictly controlled.
The elected legislators of Suu Kyi’s party met in an online meeting on Friday to declare themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of the people and asked for international recognition as the country’s government.
Pope Francis joined the international chorus of concern over the situation.
In remarks to the public in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, the Pope said he has been following “with strong worry the situation that has developed in Myanmar,” noting his affection for the country since his visit there in 2017.
He said he hoped that Myanmar’s leaders worked sincerely “to promote social justice and national stability for a harmonious democratic co-existence.”
A near-total ban on abortion has taken effect in Poland and triggered a new round of nationwide protests three months after a top court ruled that the abortion of congenitally damaged fetuses is unconstitutional.
Led by a women’s rights group, Women’s Strike, people poured onto the streets of Warsaw and other cities late Wednesday. More anti-government demonstrations are planned for Thursday evening.
Poland’s top human rights official denounced the further restriction of what was already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, calling it a tragedy for women.
“The state wants to further limit their rights, risk their lives and condemn them to torture,” said Adam Bodnar, the human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, whose role is independent from the Polish government. “This offensive is opposed by civil society.”
The only remaining legal justifications for abortion under Polish law are if the woman’s life or health is at risk, or if a pregnancy results from a crime like rape or incest.
Poland’s constitutional court on Wednesday issued a justification of a controversial October ruling that bans abortions in cases of fetuses with congenital defects, even ones so severe that there is no chance of survival upon birth.
The government then published the court’s ruling in a government journal. Those steps were the formal prerequisites required for the new law to enter into force.
Reproductive rights activists say many hospitals had already started cancelling procedures that until Wednesday were theoretically still legal, fearing possible repercussions.
Members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, which is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, had often sought the new restriction. They argued that it was a way to prevent the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome, which have made up a significant share of the legal abortions in Poland.
Women’s rights activists consider the new law to be draconian.
‘A terrible day for women and girls in Poland’
The protesters are demanding a full liberalization of the abortion law and the resignation of the government. Some on Wednesday covered their faces with green handkerchiefs, which are the symbol of the abortion rights movement in Argentina. The South American country recently legalized abortion, a historic change in deeply Catholic Latin America.
Amnesty International, which called Poland’s law taking effect “a terrible day for women and girls in Poland,” said bans never prevent abortions.
“Instead, they serve only to damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need and to which they have a right,” said Amnesty senior research adviser Esther Major.
Poland’s ruling conservatives have long sought to further restrict abortion rights. Past attempts by parliament to do so triggered mass street protests, pressure that led lawmakers to shelve those plans.
In a more than 200-page ruling, the constitutional court argued that allowing abortion when there are congenital defects is unconstitutional, because the Polish constitution protects human life. The constitutional court is made up mostly of Law and Justice appointees who ruled on a motion brought by lawmakers from the party.
The government appears to have calculated that it could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under its political control to do the job during the pandemic. Instead, massive numbers of people have in past months defied pandemic restrictions in order to demonstrate.
Thousands of Indian farmers protesting against agricultural reforms overwhelmed police on Tuesday and stormed into the historic Red Fort complex in New Delhi after tearing down barricades and driving tractors through roadblocks.
Police fired tear gas in an unsuccessful bid to force the protesters back. One protester was killed, a witness said, and Delhi police said 86 officers had been injured across the city.
Some of those who scaled the walls of Red Fort carried ceremonial swords, scattering police who tried to prevent them from entering. Footage from Reuters partner ANI showed police jumping from the ramparts to escape. Once inside, the protesters hoisted flags.
Angered by laws they say help large, private buyers at the expense of producers, farmers have camped outside the capital for almost two months, posing one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014.
“Modi will hear us now, he will have to hear us now,” said Sukhdev Singh, 55, a farmer from the northern state of Punjab.
The body of one protester draped in an Indian tricolour lay in the street after the tractor he rode overturned in one clash, said a witness, Vishu Arora.
“He died right there,” Arora said.
WATCH | Indian farmers converge on capital to protest reforms:
Thousands of Indian farmers converged on the capital, New Delhi, to continue their lengthy protest against agricultural reforms that they say will cost them money. 1:00
A Reuters witness saw several police and protesters with head injuries following clashes at the Red Fort, from whose ramparts Modi delivers an annual speech.
The government ordered internet services in some parts of the capital to be blocked, according to mobile carrier Vodafone Idea, in an attempt to prevent further unrest.
Breakaway protests condemned
Tens of thousands of farmers began the day in a convoy of tractors festooned with flags along the city’s fringes.
But hundreds of protesters — some on horseback — broke away from approved routes, heading for government buildings in the city centre where the annual Republic Day parade of troops and military hardware was taking place.
They commandeered cranes and used ropes to tear down roadblocks, forcing constables in riot gear to give way, Reuters witnesses said. A second group rode tractors to a traffic junction, also breaching barricades after clashes with police.
Police accused those who diverged from the agreed routes of “violence and destruction.”
“They have caused great damage to public property and many police personnel have also been injured,” a police statement said.
Protest organizer Samyukt Kisan Morcha said the groups deviating from set routes did not represent the majority of farmers.
“We also condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts,” the group of farm unions said in a statement.
Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab state where many of the protesters came from, called the clashes “shocking.”
“The violence by some elements is unacceptable,” he said in a tweet. “It’ll negate goodwill generated by peacefully protesting farmers.”
Farmers’ unrest concerns government
Agriculture employs about half of India’s population of 1.3 billion, and unrest among an estimated 150 million landowning farmers worries the government.
Nine rounds of talks with farmers’ unions have failed to end the protests, as farm leaders rejected the government’s offer to delay the laws for 18 months, making a push for repeal instead.
“The farm organizations have a very strong hold,” said Ambar Kumar Ghosh, an analyst at New Delhi think-tank the Observer Research Foundation.
“They have the resources to mobilize support, and to continue the protest for a long time. They have also been very successful in keeping the protest really focused.”
India showcases its military hardware with a parade every year on Republic Day, which marks the adoption of its constitution in 1950.
The wave of demonstrations that swept across Russia this weekend were notable for more than just the huge number of people who answered Alexei Navalny’s call to protest his arrest.
Just as striking were those in the crowd who said they had never supported the opposition figure before, but came out to signal their discontent with corruption and other complaints about Vladimir Putin’s government.
The composition of the crowd, as well as the breadth of the protests across more than 100 Russian towns and cities, is a strong indication that Navalny’s protest movement has significantly expanded its reach.
“The Kremlin’s mistake was to underestimate Navalny’s level of support,” Russian political observer Andrei Kolesnikov said in a tweet Monday.
Kolesnikov, a fellow at Moscow’s Carnegie Center who has extensively tracked Russian public opinion toward the Putin government, said that when people saw Navalny’s arrest on live TV upon his return to Russia on Jan. 17, as well as the online release last week of a documentary about President Putin’s alleged corruption, “it provided a strong emotional impulse to take to the street.”
The Reuters news agency reported that more than 40,000 people showed up in Moscow and 100,000 nationwide. What made the weekend turnout even more remarkable was that it happened against a backdrop of threats of arrest and intimidation from Russian security forces and cold weather (in some parts of Siberia, it was below –40 C), as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Nationwide, authorities made more than 3,700 arrests, including many of Navalny’s top organizers. His wife, Yulia, who some believe may end up leading the protest movement while Navalny is in jail, was also taken into custody but released a few hours later.
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer turned anti-corruption crusader, staged a dramatic return to Russia just over a week ago after spending five months in Germany recovering from an assassination attempt.
The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons confirmed the presence of a nerve agent on Navalny’s clothing during a flight through central Russia in August, and further investigations by the journalism collective Bellingcat implicated a team of Russian secret police agents controlled by the Kremlin as having been responsible.
After his recovery, Navalny ignored repeated warnings by Russian prosecutors to remain outside the country, and was promptly arrested after landing in Moscow. During a lightning-fast hearing in a police station, Navalny was ordered held in custody in a process one veteran Russian legal observer told CBC News was “bullshit.”
Prosecutors claim Navalny was jailed because he violated his parole — terms it would have been impossible for him to comply with since he was recovering in Germany from the attempt on his life.
Navalny’s persona and politics are complicated. While he has been embraced as a pro-democracy crusader by allies in the West, Navalny has also said the disputed Crimean peninsula should remain part of Russia. Other critics claim that Navalny is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim and that in the past he has supported the far right.
For years, even as he organized huge anti-Kremlin rallies in Russia, Navalny failed to build a united coalition against Putin, prompting many in opposition to claim Navalny is not a team player.
Nonetheless, the assassination attempt and his subsequent arbitrary arrest appears to have helped some people overcome their misgivings.
“I am sick of this government of thieves,” 68-year-old pensioner Galina Zolina told the CBC News crew at Saturday’s protest in central Moscow. “This is a police state that gives nothing to the people. [Putin] builds palaces for himself. What is this?”
Yevgeny Goloviev, a 28-year-old musician, said he wants Russia to be more democratic, with elections that aren’t pre-determined by the Kremlin.
“I don’t even think Navalny is the best politician,” Goloviev said. “But I believe in the fact that power should change.”
Many young people at the protests were reluctant to provide their names to CBC, fearing repercussions for them and their families.
“I think we have a police state, and we don’t have fair judgments,” said one 25-year-old woman. “If something goes wrong, I don’t feel I will be protected by my government.”
Part of what spurred people to take to the streets this weekend was the release by Navalny’s team of an investigation into corruption involving Putin and his allies. The almost two-hour video, entitled “Putin’s Palace,” claims Russia’s leader has been the beneficiary of a $ 1.35 billion US estate on the Black Sea, paid for by cronies of the regime.
The documentary has been viewed a staggering 80 million times on YouTube.
Among the extravagances cited in the video were toilet brushes that cost more than $ 800 each, leading many in Saturday’s giant crowds to wave toilet brushes high above their heads.
Putin himself took the unprecedented step Monday of personally denying Navalny’s allegations, saying the opulent property “does not and has never belonged to me or my close relatives.”
His statement, however, did not directly address Navalny’s claim that the Black Sea estate was built and managed on Putin’s behalf by his friends.
‘Coalition of the fed-up’
Mark Galeotti, a London-based Russia analyst and host of the podcast In Moscow’s Shadows, said in his podcast episode on Sunday that the protests are “not a knockout blow to the state. We shouldn’t start moving into hyperbole, that this is the beginning of the end of Putinism.”
Nonetheless, Galeotti said the fact that so many people with grievances against Putin’s government managed to unite around Navalny’s call to demonstrate is unprecedented.
It’s a “coalition of the fed-up,” said Galeotti. “People have all kinds of reasons to feel unhappy with the way things are going and [Navalny] kind of becomes the catalyst.”
The size and impact of the weekend’s demonstrations triggered a notable change in tack for the state TV news broadcasts. Rather than the usual practice of ignoring Navalny, the major programs addressed him and his “Putin Palace” investigation directly.
“Putin isn’t taken with toilet brushes,” claimed host Dmitry Kiselyov of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week). “He’s of a completely different calibre.”
Kisyelov’s program dedicated 55 minutes out of a two-hour long show to denigrating Navalny with unfounded claims that he has an extensive “criminal history.” Kisyelov also bizarrely accused Navalny’s team of resorting to “political pedophilia” by using teenagers and other young Russians to drum up support for the street demonstrations.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s protests, tens of thousands of young Russians posted short pro-Navalny videos on TikTok — everything from diatribes against Putin to tips on how to stay safe at the protests.
Another common theme on Russia state TV this weekend was that the protests were Western-inspired and led by the United States.
As it has done before, the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom seized on a warning issued by the U.S. embassy in Moscow for people to avoid the protest zone. The notice gave out specific times and places for protests, leading Russian officials to claim the U.S. was in fact instigating the unrest.
“Hypocrites continue to inflate the fake Navalny case to interfere into internal affairs of our country,” said the Russian embassy in the U.K. on Twitter. “This is a professionally prepared provocation, encouraged by embassies of Western countries.”
The crucial question going forward is whether Navalny’s call for sustained protests will follow a Belarus model.
Russia’s much smaller neighbour has witnessed weekly street protests against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for the past six months, but Belarus’s leader has shown no signs he plans to relinquish power.
Or will the anti-government anger against Putin and his United Russia party simply subside, as has traditionally been the case?
Although there were many scenes of violence in Moscow on Saturday, including protesters fighting back against heavily armoured riot police, there were no reports of serious injuries, and in general, police were more reserved in their use of force than they have been in the past.
By comparison, the extreme violence unleashed by security forces in the early days of the protests in Belarus last summer in all likelihood drove more people out to protest.
In his latest podcast, Galeotti said “it’s hard to maintain the momentum week after week.”
He said the anti-Putin opposition needs to try to shift the focus off crowd sizes, as they will inevitably dwindle as time goes on. Galeotti said that to sustain momentum, they need to adopt other tactics, such as encouraging flash mobs or more online protests.
He also expected the Kremlin to try to slowly grind down the protesters with a mix of repression and propaganda.
“One way or another, the state wants to slowly de-legitimize the protests and make them less appealing, and by outlasting them, make opposition look increasingly pointless.”
Police detained more than 2,500 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was applied to his underpants by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s protests, saying they were at risk from COVID-19, as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorized event.
But protesters defied the ban and, in at least one case in temperatures below –50 C, turned out in force. Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called “the clutches of his killers.”
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorized rallies in years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up, while the Foreign Affairs Ministry questioned a crowd estimate from Reuters.
“Why not just immediately say 4 million?” it suggested sarcastically on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally, put turnout in the capital at 50,000, the Proekt media outlet reported.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief,” “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
U.S., EU condemn ‘harsh tactics’
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said on social media that she had been detained at the rally. Navalny’s mother, Ludmila, was also at the protest.
Some of Navalny’s political allies were detained in the days before the protest, others on the day itself.
At one point, protesters surrounded a sleek black car with a flashing light used by senior officials, throwing snowballs at it and kicking it. A group of police officers was also pelted with snowballs by a much bigger crowd.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 2,250 people, including 855 in Moscow and 327 in St. Petersburg, had been detained at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
The United States condemned what it described as “harsh tactics” used against protesters and journalists and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
The U.S. strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists in Russia today. We call on Russia to release those detained for exercising their rights, including Aleksey Navalny, and to credibly investigate his poisoning. <a href=”https://t.co/FnYRt3RAkQ”>https://t.co/FnYRt3RAkQ</a>
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a tweet that he deplored the “disproportionate use of force” by authorities, while Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, condemned the “use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists.”
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up. He accuses President Vladimir 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.
Some protesters marched on the prison, where police were waiting to arrest them.
Images of protesters with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.
The scenes were reminiscent of the months-long unrest in Russia’s neighboring ally Belarus, where anti-government protests flared last August over allegations of voter fraud.
One Moscow protester, Sergei Radchenko, 53, said: “I’m tired of being afraid. I haven’t just turned up for myself and Navalny but for my son, because there is no future in this country.”
He added that he was frightened but felt strongly about what he called an out-of-control judicial system.
Protests across Europe
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously called the protests illegal and the work of “provocateurs.”
State prosecutors said they would look into alleged violence against police officers by protesters.
In Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, nearly 1,000 people demonstrated against Navalny’s arrest. Small demonstrations were also held in Bulgaria, and some 200 to 300 people protested in Paris.
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world, where the temperature was –52 C on Saturday, grabbed a protester by his arms and legs and dragged him into a van, video footage showed.
In Moscow, some journalists covering the protests were detained, drawing a rebuke from the U.S. Embassy.
“Russian authorities arresting peaceful protesters, journalists,” spokesperson Rebecca Ross said on Twitter. “Appears to be a concerted campaign to suppress free speech, peaceful assembly.”
WATCH | Bill Browder calls on Canada and its allies to sanction Russian officials:
Bill Browder, head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, is calling on the international community to take action following the arrest and jailing of outspoken Putin critic Alexei Navalny in Russia. 1:45
There were outages on mobile phone and internet services, the monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “deeply concerned by the detention of peaceful protesters.”
In a push to galvanize support ahead of the protests, Navalny’s team released a video about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday, the clip, with the words “Putin’s palace” in the title, had been viewed more than 69 million times.
Navalny’s allies hope to tap into what polls say are pent-up frustrations among the public over years of falling wages and economic fallout from the pandemic.
But Putin’s grip on power looks unassailable for now, and the 68-year-old president regularly records an approval rating of more than 60 per cent, much higher than that of Navalny.
It’s been one cruel decade since Egyptians dared to disrupt the status quo of living in a suffocating police state.
The first month of 2011 was marked by the early days of Egypt’s uprising, part of a wave of Arab Spring protests that many saw as brave, hopeful and inevitable.
Now, with a pandemic capping off a decade of violence, horror and mass displacement in the Middle East, the protests in Tahrir Square are, at best, consciously forgotten by skeptical Egyptians as a naïve footnote or, at worst, cursed as original sin.
Many of the ills that made Egypt ripe for an uprising in 2011 have only been exacerbated in 2021: the lack of jobs, the lack of political participation and the utter lack of freedom.
Under President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has outdone itself as a prolific jailer and executioner — Human Rights Watch recently estimated the number of political prisoners at 60,000 and rising.
According to activists, the government has also deployed a persistent campaign aimed at framing the revolution as the harbinger of Egypt’s myriad woes and the reason it has been “brought to its knees.”
Egypt is now a country where the “Tahrir people” — as they’re pejoratively referred to by supporters of the regime — are either out of the country, if they haven’t been arrested, or keeping a silent vigil.
Many of them find it “very, very painful” to revisit those two and a half weeks in 2011, says celebrated Egyptian novelist and commentator Ahdaf Soueif, who participated in the protests.
According to Soueif, they “keep the 18 days in a place where they can be safe, where we protect them against accusations of having been a collective hallucination,” she said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Ideas.
“I hope the day will come when we draw inspiration again from those 18 days.”
Weeks of demonstrations
It took 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square for the uprising to bring down Egypt’s longstanding strongman president, Hosni Mubarak. Defying predictions of certain failure, the protesters took over the square, bringing Christian, secular and Islamist Egyptians — as well as affluent and poor citizens — together in idealistic common cause.
WATCH | Anti-government protesters clash with pro-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square in early 2011:
Violence erupts in Egypt as anti-government and pro-Mubarak protesters clash in Tahrir Square. 1:45
After Mubarak’s fall, the country saw a military council take charge, followed by the election of a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, vast counter-revolutionary protests, a military coup and the subsequent massacre of hundreds or more at a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in August 2013.
The 2011 protests spread beyond Egypt to neighbouring Libya — currently all but a failed state — as well as Syria, which was plunged into a horrific civil war that has seen intervention from the region and abroad and has killed tens of thousands and displaced many more.
Other countries swept up in the Arab Spring are either in the grip of violence (like Yemen) or in a repressive political vice-grip (Bahrain or the UAE). Only Tunisia, where the wave of protests began, appears to be on a relatively peaceful path of post-revolution political reform.
Hard as it may be to talk about Tahrir, given the loss of life and the crackdowns, some veterans of the revolution insist there is something to be salvaged from its ashes.
“Yes, society has changed,” said Soueif, who wrote a book about the protests called Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. “Everybody believes that something different is absolutely necessary, but [they] don’t quite know how to go about getting it.”
But while there may have been subtle positive consequences from the uprising — like a greater awareness of the rights that have been denied to many people — she cautioned, “I really hesitate to say it because the price has been so high and continues to be so high.”
On top of what happened to so many Tahrir activists, Soueif’s blogger nephew and activist niece are currently in prison. Last year, Soueif was briefly arrested herself for protesting the conditions in their prison during COVID-19.
The Tahrir revolution may have laid the groundwork for future action, whenever conditions permit it.
For example, it has led to mass politicization among Egyptians, says journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy, a longtime blogger and activist who was also involved in the 2011 protests and helped document them.
One major lesson from that time is that “public squares do not bring down dictators and do not change regimes,” he said from Berlin, where he now lives.
“The real power is in the factories, it’s in the workplaces and it’s in the civil service offices.”
Countless strikes were going on during the revolution and workers were “chanting the same chants that we were chanting in Tahrir… and they declared their solidarity with the revolution,” said el-Hamalawy.
“That’s when I knew that … we’re going to win. Victory was on our doorstep.”
But ultimately, there was no victory.
WATCH: Tahrir Square protests lead to political stalemate:
Banks and stores have reopened in Egypt while talks between the government and opposition groups have failed to curb protests in Tahrir Square. 2:04
Destined to fail?
Activists say they found themselves wedged between forces much larger and more organized than they could hope to be — namely, an Islamist vision of the country espoused by the well-established Muslim Brotherhood; the military’s iron grip; and the geopolitics of the region, which has long favoured dictators who insisted real democracy was not compatible with stability.
There was also the very practical problem of organizing a leaderless movement and marshalling it beyond the streets. The cracks showed immediately after those 18 days.
“This was a missed opportunity,” said Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian and professor of modern Arabic studies at the University of Cambridge. He happened to be in Egypt when the protests started. Unusually for a historian, he was both an observer and a participant during a revolutionary moment.
“There was no attempt to think, OK, now Tahrir — then what? How do you transform this into a movement?”
Decades of military and one-party rule in Egypt have made it difficult for national opposition parties to flourish.
Another lasting injury from longtime repression, said Fahmy, “is [our] inability … to imagine another world” in which the state as it is today did not exist. That meant the absence of a model of a more open society to point to in Egypt’s history.
Does all that mean the revolution was destined to fail?
“If the revolution had been adopted and protected by the people who had the guns and given the space to work through these decisions and these visions that were coming from the ground up, then it would have worked and we would have had something amazing,” said Ahdaf.
Tahrir Square’s role
Beyond serving as the site of protest, Tahrir Square itself provided space and inspiration for discussion of ground-level proposals for an “ideal” Egypt that might have seen the light of day had there been a way to channel them into practice.
One example, said Fahmy, was the idea of a demilitarized police force that would be designed to serve the people rather than the state — a novel idea for modern-day Egypt.
A far more basic achievement for the square was that it brought people together to talk.
“This sounds banal,” said Fahmy, but not in a place like Egypt. “Our cities, our country, our political system is designed in a way to deprive us of not only free speech but the ability to listen to others.”
That kind of conversation is the starting point of compromise, he added.
Fahmy believes the revolution continues, at least on some level. The 2011 protests, he said, “is one phase.”
Soueif agrees. But not el-Hamalawy.
“No, it’s not ongoing. The revolution got defeated,” el-Hamalawy said. “There will be another revolution, but not anytime soon, I’m afraid.”
Indeed, even among those who participated in the Tahrir revolution, the lessons and the legacy are contested.
After years of instability and the return of fear, the old argument that stability trumps freedom resonates among many Egyptians and others throughout the region.
That resonance is unsurprising given the state of the Middle East after the protests spread and crackdowns of varying levels of brutality ensued.
The message from Egypt’s rulers now — as it was during Mubarak’s time — is “give up your freedoms and we will give you security,” said Fahmy.
“It’s a Faustian deal and many people accepted that. And the result is that people have not only given up freedoms, they’ve given up their dreams. That’s the most dangerous thing.”
But el-Hamalawy said Tahrir’s legacy cannot be forgotten wholesale.
Because of the internet, “the whole visual memory of the revolution, it is saved,” he said.
“Now there is a younger generation that’s growing up and on YouTube, they know quite well that their older brothers were protesting in Tahrir.
“The memory is there. Tahrir is there. And it will remain there.”
This episode of CBC Ideas was produced by Nahlah Ayed and Menaka Raman-Wilms.