Putin denies he owns 'palace' as Navalny aides urge fresh rallies

Navalny's report - his most-watched anti-corruption probe by far - claims the property is worth $1.35 billion and features everything from an underground ice rink to a casino.

FILE: Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 11, 2019. Picture: AFP

MOSCOW, Russia - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday dismissed claims by opposition leader Alexei Navalny that he owns a lavish property on the Black Sea, as the opposition urged fresh nationwide demonstrations.

Fresh from protests last weekend, Navalny's aides called again for Russians to take to the streets on Sunday ahead of a court case that could see Russia's most prominent Kremlin critic put behind bars for more than three years.

The 44-year-old campaigner was detained earlier this month when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recuperating from exposure to a Soviet-designed toxin.

He called on his supporters in dozens of cities to rally last weekend and released a two-hour investigation into the palatial seaside property to spur allies to demonstrate.

The rallies saw a record number of arrests, and Putin on Monday denied having anything to do with the property in Navalny's video, which has now been watched 86 million times.

"Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did," Putin said during a video call with Russian students.

Navalny's report -- his most-watched anti-corruption probe by far -- claims the property is worth $1.35 billion and features everything from an underground ice rink to a casino.

'TERRORISTS' JIBE

One of his key aides, Leonid Volkov, on Monday urged Russians to take to the streets again on January 31 "for Navalny's freedom, for freedom for all, and for justice".

Saturday's rallies saw clashes between police and protesters, 3,700 of whom were detained according to a monitoring group.

Putin said on Monday that Russian citizens have the right to express themselves but that they must do so "within the framework of the law".

A Moscow court on Monday handed down the first jail term following the protests, sentencing one demonstrator to 10 days in detention.

Putin also said minors should not be encouraged to join the unsanctioned rallies, referring to a claim repeated by authorities that the opposition had encouraged young people to protest.

"That's what terrorists do. They put women and children in front of themselves," the Russian leader said.

TECH FIRMS TAKE FLAK

The Russian foreign ministry on Monday repeated claims that US diplomats had encouraged Russians to participate in the rallies and said it had lodged a "strong protest" with the American ambassador.

That allegation followed earlier claims by the Kremlin that the US embassy was interfering in Russian affairs by publishing protest routes ahead of the rallies.

An embassy spokeswoman told AFP that it was "routine practice" for diplomatic missions to issue safety messages to their citizens abroad.

The foreign ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Monday also said Russia would probe American tech companies over "interference" related to the demonstrations.

Ahead of the rallies, Russia's media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered social media platforms including YouTube and Instagram to delete calls for demonstrations posted on their platforms.

Navalny's arrest was met with widespread condemnation in the West with the European Union saying it was considering new sanctions on Russia.

European diplomats said on Monday that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell would visit Moscow early next month to press the Kremlin on Navalny's arrest.

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