MOSCOW — Several thousand people demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday in the biggest protest action so far this fall.
Protesters marched along Moscow’s central Boulevard Ring road carrying photographs of political prisoners, including business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the band Pussy Riot.
This month marks 10 years of imprisonment for Khodorkovsky, a onetime oil baron who was the richest man in Russia. Two young women from Pussy Riot, a politically charged punk rock group, were imprisoned last year. They have at least one thing in common: They challenged Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Khodorkovsky openly supported opposition parties, and the Pussy Riot musicians performed a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s main cathedral, calling for Putin to be driven from power.
Other photographs carried by protesters Sunday showed more than two dozen activists detained on May 6, 2011, in an anti-Putin march that ended in clashes with police.
“Our task today is to mobilize enough people to compel the Kremlin to release the innocent victims of political repression from prisons,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who marched with his wife in the middle of the column, said in an interview.
The popular and charismatic anti-corruption crusader himself narrowly escaped a five-year prison term following his conviction in July for embezzlement of $500 from an obscure provincial timber company. Navalny was released on appeal, allowing him to run for mayor of Moscow in September.
Although he lost the race to the Kremlin-backed acting mayor, he gained impressive public support — a likely reason, many experts believe, that his prison term was commuted earlier this month to a suspended sentence.
Navalny’s release may also have been a sign that with the approach of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi in February, the Kremlin is prepared to make some concessions to its opposition and civil society groups.
The State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, is about to consider a draft of a sweeping amnesty prepared by the Presidential Council on Human Rights at Putin’s request.
The draft amnesty was submitted to Putin last week.
“We have a big chance to achieve this amnesty,” Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who served as deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government, said during Sunday’s march. “Putin is afraid that leaders of Western countries will not attend his (Olympic Games). Athletes may come but not Western leaders. So now is the best time for us to push toward our goal.”
As thousands were marching and chanting slogans such as “Russia will be free,” “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom to Putin’s hostages,” riot police stood on sidewalks but didn’t interfere.
Thousands of additional police sat at the ready in trucks that jammed nearby streets. No arrests were made, a striking contrast to most previous opposition rallies.