Brussels: Russia has expelled three European diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for participating in "illegal" rallies demanding the release of President Vladimir Putin's biggest critic Alexey Navalny.
According to an official statement, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it had made formal protests to the embassies of Germany, Poland and Sweden.
Representatives of these countries are said to have participated in mass-demonstrations that saw thousands take to the streets in cities across Russia over the past two weeks, Russia Today reported.
As per the officials, the diplomats have been made "personae non grata" and "ordered to leave the territory of the Russian Federation as soon as possible." Politicians across the world have condemned the Moscow Court's sentence of Navalny and called for his release.
A Moscow court on Tuesday sent Navalny to prison for more than two-and-a-half years.
CNN reported the verdict was announced after a heated hearing in which the Kremlin critic ridiculed claims he broke his parole conditions while in a coma and denounced Russia's leader as "Putin the prisoner." The Putin critic was previously handed a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence in the 2014 case along with five years of probation. He had to spend five months in Germany recovering from Novichok poisoning before his return to Moscow on January 17.
Kremlin’s action unjustified: Germany
Berlin: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called Moscow's decision to expel three European diplomats unjustified, adding that it may worsen relations between Russia and the European Union.
"The decision of Russia to expel several EU diplomats, including an employee of the [German] embassy in Moscow, is in no way justified and causes further damage to relations with Europe," the foreign ministry quoted Maas as saying.
According to him, "the affected German diplomat carried out exclusively the tasks stipulated in the framework of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in order to legally obtain information about the development of events from the scene." "If Russia does not reconsider this decision, then it will not remain unanswered," the minister added.
‘Detention of protesters not repression’
Moscow: The detention of protesters at the recent "illegitimate rallies" in Russia is a police measure against law violators, not an act of repression, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The ongoing protests first broke out across Russia on January 23 when thousands of people took to the streets against the detention of opposition figure and Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny.
Addressing a daily briefing on Thursday, Peskov said that claims of repression were emotionally charged, and added that there were multiple direct assaults on police officers during these demonstrations in support of Navalny.
While overcrowded detention centres are under pressure, all possible measures are currently being taken to tackle paperwork problems, he said.