Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, Russia, took to the streets to protest the arrest of the region’s governor accused of participating in several murders.
Local media estimated that the rally in the city 6,100 km east of Moscow drew more than 15,000 people on Saturday.
The governor of Khabarovsk, Sergey Furgal, was arrested two weeks ago and airlifted to Moscow where he was jailed for two months.
Huge rallies in the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China are increasingly worrying the Kremlin, observers say, coming after President Vladimir Putin oversaw a controversial vote this month to extend his grip on power until 2036.
This is the second large-scale demonstration in the region in the past seven days, following a rally in the city center last Saturday.
The two demonstrations are said to be the largest in the history of Khabarovsk, a city of 590,000 inhabitants.
While many expressed support for the arrested politician, some of the protest signs and chants were clearly anti-Putin.
Smaller gatherings were also held in nearby towns, including Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Amursk, and the peaceful port of Vladivostok in the neighboring Primorsky Krai region.
During rallies that lasted several hours, crowds also gathered outside the building housing the regional administration, chanting “Freedom!
The demonstrators carried signs reading “Freedom for Furgal!” And shouted “As long as we are united, we are invincible”, while the passing cars honked in support.
‘We need him’
Protesters praised the arrested governor, saying he had done a lot for the region over the past two years.
“I defend it because I love it,” said Anatoly Svechin, a 49-year-old Cossack member of the paramilitary group traditionally loyal to the Kremlin.
Another protester, Gennady Vasin, called the governor’s detention an example of “political arbitrariness”.
“We don’t want Sergei Ivanovich to be taken away,” said Gennady Yakovlev, using the first and last name of Furgal. “We need him, we elected him. “
Furgal’s unexpected victory in the gubernatorial election reflected growing public frustration with President Putin’s policies and marked a big setback for the Kremlin’s main party, United Russia.
Many protesters say the charges are politically motivated and wonder why investigators waited so long to charge an official who should have undergone a background check.
Investigators say Furgal organized the murders of several Far Eastern businessmen in 2004 and 2005.
Protesters called for a “fair trial” for the governor, not in Moscow, where he has been held since his arrest.
“He is our governor! And we will defend it, ”they shouted.
As with previous protests, the rally was not approved by authorities, but police took no action to disperse it.
Leading Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny applauded protests and posted a message on social media site Instagram announcing the city of Khabarovsk for refusing to “believe Putin’s endless lies about the” justice “of its courts and” the honesty “of its elections”.