Russians rally as jail-threatened opposition leader sets sights on Kremlin

Activist Alexei Navalny believes President Putin is behind the court case against him

Opposition supporters hold a rally in central Moscow  demanding the release of anti-government activists. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Opposition supporters hold a rally in central Moscow demanding the release of anti-government activists. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

 


Hundreds of Russians have rallied to demand the release from jail of anti-government activists.

The protest comes as an opposition leader and presidential hopeful prepares for a court case that he claims has been ordered by the Kremlin.

About 600 people gathered in central Moscow on Saturday brandishing placards and pictures of the 25 critics of president Vladimir Putin who were charged following a protest last May that ended in clashes between demonstrators and riot police. Most of them are in pre-trial detention and some are under house arrest.

Since returning to the Kremlin last year, Mr Putin has tightened control over street protests, broadened treason laws to encompass anything that can be seen as undermining national security, and forced non-governmental organisations that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.

The EU, US, Germany and France are concerned at raids by prosecutors and tax authorities on hundreds of NGOs operating around Russia.

“We are holding this protest to prevent the possibility of mass political repressions . . . We don’t want the Gulag happening again,” said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition politician expelled from parliament by pro-Putin deputies for alleged corruption.

Almost all of those charged after the protest last May await trial. One of the accused has already pleaded guilty and was given 4½ years in jail.

“If those people get sentences of several years, then Russia will be a step closer to being a totalitarian state,” said activist Lev Ponomarev.


Anti-Putin rallies

Anti-Putin rallies have shrunk dramatically since his re-election. This has prompted opposition leader and presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny to shift from street protests to inquiries into high-level corruption among Putin loyalists. Two prominent pro-Kremlin politicians have been forced to leave parliament in recent weeks due to his allegations.

Mr Navalny (36) faces trial on April 17th, however, for alleged timber theft worth about €385,000 from a state firm in 2009.

Critics note that polls suggest that only 37 per cent of Russians know who Mr Navalny is and just 14 per cent would consider voting for him.

Mr Navalny rejects the charges against him.