By Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) -Riot police fired tear gas and hit protesters with batons in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan on Wednesday after a leading local rights activist was sentenced to four years in a penal colony.
Clashes broke out between the police and a large crowd of people who had gathered in support of the activist, Fail Alsynov. At a trial that was closed to the media, a court found him guilty of inciting ethnic hatred, a charge he denied.
Videos published on social media showed people shouting “Gas!” and moving away. One clip showed a line of police lashing out with batons at the crowd. In another, a woman remonstrated with police to stop beating a person lying on the ground.
Large protests in Russia are extremely rare because of the risk of arrest over any gatherings which the authorities deem unauthorised. Thousands of people have been detained in the past two years for opposing the war in Ukraine.
The timing is sensitive for the authorities, at the start of an election campaign in which President Vladimir Putin is seeking a new six-year term. While Putin’s victory is not in doubt, analysts said there would be pressure on Bashkortostan’s regional head, Radiy Khabirov, to keep the situation in hand in order to avoid embarrassment for the Kremlin.
Alsynov was accused of insulting migrant workers in a speech he made in April 2023 at a protest over plans to mine for gold in Bashkortostan, which is located in Russia’s southern Ural mountains near the border between Europe and Asia.
His supporters said the case against him was delayed revenge for his role in protests several years earlier in which activists successfully blocked plans to mine for soda on a hill that local people consider a sacred place.
“Huge thanks to everyone who came to support me. I will never forget this. I don’t admit my guilt. I always fought for justice, for my people, for my republic,” Alsynov told online media outlet RusNews after the verdict.
People in the crowd shouted “Shame!” and “We won’t give up Fail!” Video footage showed protesters pelting the police with snowballs that smashed harmlessly on their riot shields.
Independent Russian-language news outlets said police made arrests, but the number of people detained was not clear.
From the videos, it appeared that up to several thousand people had rallied in support of Alsynov – a large turnout in the small settlement of Baymak, 1,380 km (860 miles) east of Moscow, where the trial took place.
Bashkortostan, an oil-producing region of 4.1 million people, is one of more than 80 entities that make up the Russian Federation.
Alsynov was a leader of Bashkort, a grassroots movement to preserve the culture, language and ethnic identity of the region’s people. The movement was banned as an extremist organisation in 2020.
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Mark Heinrich)