By Jack Stubbs
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was briefly detained by police on Thursday and accused of organizing illegal protests, weeks ahead of a presidential election in which he has been barred from running.
A 41-year-old anti-corruption campaigner, Navalny was repeatedly jailed last year for organizing some of Russia's biggest protests, targeting what he says are the luxury lifestyles of President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.
He has been barred from running in the March 18 election over what his supporters say is a trumped-up suspended prison sentence, but has called for a nationwide boycott aimed at undermining Putin's legitimacy.
Navalny said on Twitter he was detained by police on Thursday as he left a dentist appointment. He was released just under an hour later, saying police had opened a case against him for organizing illegal protests.
"They offered me a lift somewhere, but I declined and have gone to work. I don't understand what happened and why it took seven people to detain me," he said.
If found guilty of the police charges, Navalny faces up to 30 days in jail, a sentence which would see him sit out the rest of the pre-election period and voting day itself behind bars.
Navalny has come under increasing pressure from authorities as he has sought to rally Russians against the upcoming election, which he says is a sham and a rigged contest.
While Putin is widely expected to win the vote by a landslide and secure a fourth presidential term, analysts say some Russians may stay away from the polls in protest over falling living standards, and the Kremlin is keen to ensure a high turnout.
Navalny was detained at an anti-election protest in Moscow in late January and had his website blocked earlier this month after refusing to remove material covered in a court injunction.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday but has previously said Navalny does not represent any real threat to Putin, who he described as "a leader of the political Olympus."
Navalny's detention on Thursday came shortly after his campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, also said on Twitter that he had been detained by police at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.
After his release, Navalny said Volkov was still being held and denied access to his lawyer.
Tweeting before his detention, Navalny said Volkov had been planning to fly to the Russian regional republic of Bashkortostan to organize election-monitoring activities.
Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, told Reuters the head of the opposition campaigner's Anti-corruption Foundation had been sentenced to ten days in jail on Tuesday for organizing an unsanctioned protest in January.
(Additional reporting by Kevin O'Flynn, Polina Devitt, Andrey Kuzmin, Maxim Rodionov and Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Richard Balmforth)