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Russians who laid flowers in Navalny’s memory are being harassed by law enforcement

Photo credit: The Moscow Times

Russian law enforcement agencies have begun detaining citizens who laid flowers at various memorials following the announcement of Alexei Navalny’s death. Starting from Feb. 16, thousands of Russians across the country spontaneously began turning monuments to the victims of Soviet-era political repression into makeshift memorials to Navalny himself. Using facial recognition technology, police have begun identifying some of the mourners — and taking them into custody.

As the human rights group and publication OVD-Info reports, four participants of mid-February public gatherings commemorating Navalny have been detained in Moscow so far: Polina Orekhova, Elena Gribkova, Egor Komlev, and Elena Levina.

On Tuesday, Mar. 5, officers of Russia’s Centre for Combating Extremism detained Elena Gribkova and Egor Komlev and took them to a police precinct. Komlev was detained as he was leaving his apartment and had his passport taken from him at the precinct. He said the police had admitted having tracked him using CCTV footage.

Komlev and Gribkova attended Navalny’s Mar. 1 funeral and also participated in the memorial rallies on Feb. 16 and 17. Gribkova was detained at one of the February events but was let go with a warning.

Elena Levina, who participated in the memorial protest on Feb. 17 and was also dismissed with a warning after being detained on the spot, has been detained again in Moscow’s Novogireevo District.

Another detainee, Polina Orekhova, had her phone taken from her during a conversation with OVD-Info. Her phone is currently out of coverage, according to the publication’s Telegram channel. Law enforcement officers have confiscated her personal belongings and intend to keep her in custody for 48 hours.

The first notable use of facial recognition technology by Russian law enforcement agencies dates back to the mass protests in support of Navalny in 2021, when the system was used to identify multiple protesters by analyzing CCTV footage and to detain them within a week after the rallies.

As the independent publication Agentstvo notes, citing OVD-Info spokesperson Dmitry Anisimov, Moscow’s facial recognition system is capable of tracking city residents’ every movement as soon as they leave home. It is premature to speak about mass arrests stemming from the recent memorial gatherings, but on the day of Navalny’s funeral, the project was already warning its participants about the risk of subsequent prosecution.

On the day Navalny was laid to rest, as many as 113 Russians were detained across the country, OVD-Info reports. In Moscow, where the opposition leader’s funeral gathered a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands, only 17 attendees were detained at the event itself.

However, it appears that police are beginning to track down participants from the funeral as well. The first to be arrested after the fact was a Moscow resident who was caught on camera at Navalny’s funeral chanting “Glory to the heroes!” (a Ukrainian patriotic salutation). Law enforcement officers came to her home on the evening of Mar. 1, but she was already out of town. They returned on Mar. 3 and detained her, keeping her at the police station overnight. Eventually, she was let go with a $17 fine for “demonstrating prohibited symbols.”

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