Russian Police and Opposition Supporters Face Off at Protests
MOSCOW, July 18 (RIA Novosti) – Thousands of supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny gathered around a central square in Moscow on Thursday evening to protest his sentencing that day to five years in prison.
As a trickle of civilians began flowing into Manezh Square in the early evening, police muscled some of them away from the area, cordoned off with metal barricades. Within an hour the crowd – sometimes clapping as Belarusian protesters famously did in 2011, sometimes chanting, "Shame!" "Freedom!" "Navalny!" and "Russia without Putin!" – had grown much larger and spilled into surrounding streets.
Navalny's wife, Yulia, reportedly commented on Twitter: "Thank you all! It's a crazy feeling when you realize you're not alone!"
Meanwhile, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office requested that Navalny be released from custody until his sentence would begin. If Navalny does not appeal the verdict, he would have to go to prison in 10 days, the office's press service said.
According to the Interior Ministry's press service, some 2,500 people attended the unsanctioned rally in Moscow. Large public gatherings in Russia's capital are illegal without the permission of the city authorities.
Journalists saw several protesters being led to police trucks, dozens of which were reportedly parked on nearby streets.
OVD-Info, an independent rights group monitoring arrests at Moscow demonstrations, said a total of 58 people had been detained by the police.
Throughout the rally Thursday, police urged protesters to leave the area and thwarted numerous attempts to block traffic.
Most of the protestors crowded in front of the nearby headquarters of the lower house of parliament. Many cars slowed down to honk and greet the protesters.
Rallies to support Navalny were held in other major Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, where at least 30 were detained, reports said, as well as Yekaterinburg, Voronezh, Vladimir, Tomsk, Magnitogorsk and Vladivostok.
Navalny, a whistle-blowing blogger and one of Russia's most prominent opposition protest leaders, was sentenced to five years in prison Thursday on embezzlement charges linked to the 2009 sale of timber by a state-run company at allegedly below-market prices. His co-defendant in the trial, Pyotr Ofitserov, was sentenced to four years in jail.
The guilty verdict against Navalny sparked outrage among his supporters, with over 10,000 signing up on social networks by late Thursday afternoon to attend an unauthorized demonstration in Moscow and other locations nationwide.
"I am here because it's disgusting," Vitaly, a doctor in his 20s, told RIA Novosti about his reasons for coming to Manezh Square. "I'd have never cared for politics if there was order. But there is none, and they [the authorities] have been stealing all our money."
"We had a date tonight but we decided to start it here because we couldn't do otherwise," said Yelena, 24, a military-industrial complex employee.
Earlier in the day, city authorities warned against any unsanctioned protest activity.
"All attempts to hold any events will be regarded by the law enforcement authorities as unsanctioned," City Hall's security department head Alexei Mayorov told RIA Novosti, warning that police would break up any unauthorized rally.
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