Police arrested nearly 1,500 people Wednesday during a day of demonstrations throughout Russia calling for freedom for imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose health reportedly is in severe decline after three weeks of hunger striking, according to a group that monitors political detentions. The largest of the protests took place in Moscow, where thousands marched through the center city, the AP reports. Some of the people arrested were seized before the protests even began, including two top Navalny associates in Moscow. Navalny's team called for the unsanctioned demonstrations after weekend reports that his health is deteriorating and that his life was in danger. "The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests," said Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption.
Navalny's organization called for the Moscow protesters to assemble on Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls, but police blocked it off. Instead, a large crowd gathered at the nearby Russian State Library and another lined Tverskaya Street, a main avenue that leads to the square. Both groups then moved through the streets. "How can you not come out if a person is being murdered—and not just him. There are so many political prisoners,” said Nina Skvortsova, a Moscow protester. In St. Petersburg, police blocked off Palace Square, the vast space outside the Hermitage museum, and protesters instead crowded along nearby Nevsky Prospekt. The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests and provides legal advice, said at least 1,496 people were arrested in 82 cities—the largest tally being nearly 600 in St. Petersburg. Navalny's team called the nationwide protests for the same day that President Vladimir Putin gave his annual state of the nation address; Navalny is Putin's most prominent opponent.
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