Protesters and riot police clashed in a small town in Russia’s central Bashkortostan, leaving injured on both sides, after an activist was sentenced to four years in prison.
Street protests are rare in Russia, which has clamped down on dissent since launching its military offensive in Ukraine and has strict anti-demonstration laws.
Crowds of men in the town of Baymak fought with riot police in temperatures hovering around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), social media footage showed. Russia’s Investigative Committee said police and protestors sustained injuries.
“During the mass riots, which were accompanied by violence including the use of objects as weapons, several people were injured, including members of law enforcement,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
The independent OVD-Info rights group, which monitors protests across Russia, said police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators and that dozens had been detained.
The Investigative Committee said it had opened criminal cases into “mass rioting” — a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison — and for violence against a public officer, punishable by up to five years in prison.
– ‘Fought for justice’ –
The protests started after a court in the town of around 17,000 people sentenced Fail Alsynov, an eco-activist and campaigner for the protection of the Bashkir language, to four years in prison for “inciting hatred”.
The ruling was issued behind closed doors.
Alsynov was accused of making a racist comment in a speech to a village council meeting against gold digging. He insists his words were mistranslated from the Bashkir language.
The SOTA opposition Telegram channel showed a video of a handcuffed Alsynov inside the courtroom after the verdict on Wednesday, protesting his innocence.
“I do not admit my guilt,” Alsynov said, vowing to appeal the ruling.
“I always fought for justice, for my nation, for my republic.”
According to SOTA, the clashes started after protesters blocked the court building in a bid to try to stop Alsynov from being taken away.
Videos shared on social media showed men washing their eyes with water after reports police used tear gas in the freezing temperatures.
Anticipating a public response, police had on the eve of the verdict warned against “illegal public gatherings”.
– ‘Mass riots’ –
Alsynov’s case had already sparked protests of several hundred people in Baymak earlier this week.
The head of the local interior ministry, Rafail Divayev, urged demonstrators to back down on Wednesday.
“Mass riots threaten our country’s national security, therefore the punishment under this article is quite serious,” the state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.
“I advise you to come to your senses and not ruin your life.”
The protests are some of the biggest demonstrations since Russia sent troops into Ukraine and escalated a decade-long crackdown on opposition to the Kremlin.
Some protesters called for the dismissal of the local governor, Radiy Khabirov, who had accused Alsynov of using racist language.
In the speech that resulted in the charges, Alsynov had used two words in Bashkir that were translated into Russian as “black people”.
In Russia, the phrase is often used to pejoratively describe people from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Alsynov said he was referring to poor people.
The activist was last year fined for criticising Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine online, saying it was not in Bashkortostan’s interests.
According to local media, Alsynov called Russia’s mobilisation drive a “genocide of the Bashkir people” and said Moscow’s offensive “was not our war”.
Multiple independent analyses have shown a disproportionately high number of military call-ups and fatalities among Russia’s minority national groups, including from Bashkortostan.
The Kremlin has tried to head off nationalist sentiment among the groups, blaming any ethnic tension on Ukraine and the West.
A Russian army batallion from Bashkortostan criticised Alsynov in a social media video, calling for him to be drafted into the military.
“We urge you to send Alsynov and his friends to our battalion. We will re-educate them and teach them to love the motherland,” one fighter said.