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Russia detains opposition leader over criticism of Ukraine war

Russian police have detained one of the most prominent opposition politicians still free in the country for his public criticism of the Ukraine war, capping a six-month crackdown on dissent propelled by the Kremlin’s invasion of its neighbour.

Yevgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia, said he was to be charged for his use of the word “invasion” under strict new laws that ban criticism of the Russian armed forces. He could face five years in prison if convicted, Russian state news media reported.

Little is left of an organised opposition movement in Russia, where people who protest against the war either do so anonymously or are, like Roizman, simply waiting for arrest.

More than 224 Russians are facing jail time for calling the conflict a “war” or “invasion”, the OVD_Info human rights group reported on Wednesday. Nearly 16,500 people had been detained across Russia for protesting against the war since late February. Even individual picketers holding up anti-war signs, an act nominally protected under Russian law, are quickly bundled into police vans. Most vocal opposition members are now in exile.

Roizman, who built his political base through his public outreach and blunt, often foul-mouthed criticism of the Russian authorities, had refused to stay quiet.

“I now understand how the anti-fascists felt during the Third Reich,” he told the Observer in an interview in March. “But I can’t flee, it is unacceptable for me to do that.” Three of the six activists quoted in that article have since been arrested.

To many, his arrest was just a matter of time. Roizman himself said he kept a bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste and other essentials for when the time came.

Video released by a pro-Kremlin news outlet showed masked police in bulletproof vests storming into the apartment building where Roizman lives. After a search, Roizman was led from the flat past journalists waiting in the stairwell. When asked where he had used the word “invasion”, he replied: “I say it everywhere.”

Most others who have dared to speak out against the war, including the activists Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, have already ended up behind bars. “I’m the only one still free,” wrote Roizman last month, publishing a photo of the three along with jailed activist Andrei Pivovarov. Roizman is also a supporter of Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned last year and had called for public protests in opposition to the war.

Roizman is rare among opposition figures for his success in electoral politics. He served as mayor of Ekaterinburg from 2013 to 2018 after winning popular elections to the post. In a sign that his arrest may anger locals, Russian officials announced Roizman would be transferred to Moscow while the investigation continues.

The Kremlin may fear a repeat of the months-long protests that followed the arrest of regional governor Sergei Furgal in 2020. Moving Roizman to Moscow could keep him away from his closest allies and prevent protesters from gathering near the jail where he is to be held.

In an unusual statement, the governor of the region, who is loyal to the Kremlin, said Roizman deserved “justice and respect and I hope he will receive it”. He also said he expected that Roizman’s museum of icons would remain open.

Roizman’s reputation took years to build, beginning from when he ran an anti-drugs centre in the 1990s that used severe methods to force addicts to quit heroin.

As he entered politics, Roizman developed more conventional tactics: until this week, he held weekly runs through Ekaterinburg where locals could approach him for help, and he founded a museum of religious icons that was open to the public.

He has also engaged regularly in trolling and insulting public officials on Twitter. He has been fined three times since the outbreak of the war for his public remarks. Repeated violations of the law can lead to a criminal charge.

It is not clear what finally led to the arrest of Roizman, who has been an irritant to the Kremlin for years. As the shortcomings of Russia’s war in Ukraine have increasingly become public knowledge, some believe the Kremlin will have to look for scapegoats at home.

“Strength, endurance and freedom to Evgeny Roizman,” wrote Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition MP in St Petersburg who has also spoken out against the war and remains at large. “It looks like the worst predictions are coming true.”

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