Supporters of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny held candle-lit gatherings in residential courtyards across Russia on Sunday despite warnings that they could be arrested, reports Reuters.
Navalny’s allies have called for a halt to street rallies until the spring after police detained thousands of demonstrators over the past few weeks.
However, they asked Russians to show solidarity with Navalny by gathering outside their homes for 15 minutes on Valentine’s Day evening, shining their mobile phone torches and arranging candles in heart shapes. People posted pictures of themselves on social media doing so.
Navalny was arrested last month on his return from Germany following treatment for poisoning with what many Western countries say was a nerve agent. He was jailed on Feb 2 for violating parole on what he said were trumped-up charges.
He blames President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning. The Kremlin denies any involvement and questions whether Navalny was in fact poisoned.
Western countries are considering new sanctions against Russia.
Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s close allies, tweeted a call for people to gather on Sunday, saying, “Putin is fear. Navalny is love. That’s why we will win.”
Volkov, who is based in Lithuania, is one of several Navalny allies now abroad or under house arrest in Russia.
Another activist called on women to form a human chain in Moscow on Sunday afternoon in support of Navalny’s wife Yulia, who was reported to have flown to Germany this week.
More than 100 women formed a chain in central Moscow, braving freezing cold and holding a long white ribbon.
There were no large-scale arrests or clashes with the police.
Russian law enforcement agencies on Thursday said that people taking part in unsanctioned rallies could face criminal charges.
Rights groups have accused police of using disproportionate force against protesters in recent weeks. The Kremlin has said protests are illegal because they were not approved and risked spreading Covid-19.
Putin has blamed the pandemic for fuelling the protests and tried to downplay the role of Navalny. Speaking to mostly pro-government media last week, Putin refused to call Navalny by name, referring to him as “the defendant”.
“This defendant is being used just as people’s fatigue is emerging all over the world, including in our country,” he said. “Irritation has piled up, people have become disgruntled.”
He said Navalny was in effect an outlet for anger at the authorities over the pandemic.