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Blinken condemns 'harsh tactics' as thousands detained at Navalny protests in Russia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned the "persistent use of harsh tactics" against protesters for a second week straight.
Police detain a man during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Sunday.Alexander Nemenov / AFP - Getty Images

MOSCOW — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned Russian authorities for using "harsh tactics" against protesters and journalists, as thousands were detained at demonstrations calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

From Vladivostok to Moscow, thousands of demonstrators defied stern warnings from authorities, turning out in freezing temperatures for the second weekend in a row against Navalny's imprisonment and government corruption.

In Moscow, police tried to pre-emptively diffuse mass gatherings by closing down subway stations and blocking roads in the heart of the country's capital.

Navalny’s team initially called for the protests to be held in the city's Lubyanka Square, home to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, but a heavy police presence prevented them from entering, so they moved across the city, chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin.

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"This is a good chance to actually change something in the country," one protester, Alisa, told NBC News near Sukharevskaya subway station. She added that she was taking part in a demonstration for the first time in her life, despite the fear that she might be detained.

"You are always at risk that you might be next," said Alisa, who did not wish to give her last name or age because she was worried about being arrested.

Her fears appeared well founded, as police quickly began to make arrests across the capital, detaining scores and putting them into police buses.

NBC News witnessed protesters detained seemingly at random near Komsomolskaya subway station in northeast Moscow, which was also shut down Sunday.

Lawyer Vyacheslav Gimadi tweeted a video of Navalny's wife, Yulia, being detained at a rally in Moscow. She earlier shared a photo on her Instagram page marching with protesters in the city's Sokolniki District. Gimadi said he had no idea where Yulia was taken.

More than 5,000 people were detained across nearly 90 towns and cities, protest monitoring group OVD Info reported. Most of the arrests were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it said.

Elsewhere around the country, dozens of people in the east Siberian city of Yakutsk turned out in temperatures of -42 C (-44 F), the Associated Press reported.

In the far eastern city of Vladivostok, police prevented protesters from accessing the center, forcing them to relocate to the waterfront and the frozen waters of the Amur Bay, according to Reuters.

After almost 4,000 people were detained in nationwide rallies last weekend, the State Department and many European countries openly condemned Navalny's imprisonment and police crackdown on protesters.

Blinken tweeted Sunday that the U.S. "condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight."

He added that Navalny and other protesters should be released.

Russian Foreign Ministry replied directly to his tweet. It claimed that Blinken's support for the protesters was "a confirmation of Washington's behind-the-scenes role."

Russian state media and officials have blamed the U.S. and its NATO allies for stoking the unrest.

Navalny, meanwhile, remains in prison, where he has been held following his arrest at a Moscow airport earlier this month. He had returned to his homeland from Germany, where he received treatment after he was poisoned the by Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in Siberia last summer.

Along with his allies, Navalny, 44, has accused Putin of being behind the attack, a claim that the Kremlin vehemently denies.

A Russian court is set to meet later this week to decide whether he should serve 3 1/2 years for fraud, despite a 2017 ruling from Europe's top court that his 2014 conviction for fraud was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”

Days after his arrest, Navalny’s team released an investigation into a lavish palace they alleged belongs to Putin amid reports of rampant corruption among the Kremlin’s political elites. The video has now been viewed more than 105 million times.

Putin, who normally does not comment on Navalny's investigations, denied all claims against him last week.

Matthew Bodner reported from Moscow and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.