Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets this weekend to demand the release of the governor of Khabarovsk, Sergei Furgal, after he was arrested last week on dubious murder charges.
Furgal, who is a member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, was arrested on Friday on a series of alleged murder charges of several businessmen that took place between 2004 and 2005 when he was involved in the timber and scrap metal trade. He was immediately flown to Moscow from his home city and appeared in court to plead not guilty. He has been remanded in custody until September 9.
His arrest also came less than a fortnight after Putin orchestrated a nationwide referendum on constitutional reforms that would allow him to rule for another 16 years, which Furgal opposed. He first began posing problems for Putin in 2018 when he defeated the candidate from Putin’s own United Russia party in the gubernatorial election in a surprise landslide victory.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people protested across the city of Khabarovsk, with protesters chanting slogans such as “Freedom for Furgal,” “Moscow Get Out,” and “Putin Step Down.” Demonstrations of such a scale are extremely rare for cities outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Local authorities denounced the “provocative slogans” used at the protest and urged people to show “common sense” because mass gatherings still remain banned under coronavirus restrictions:
Комсомольчане собираются у здания фсб.
— Михаил Потапенков (@potapms) July 12, 2020
Furgal press secretary Nadezhda Tomchenko thanked the city for its support in a Facebook video streamed from her boss’s account.
“The whole city is abuzz,” she said. “I would like to ask, however, to refrain from aggression, from provocations which could do more harm than good”:
Хабаровск сейчас. Дальний Восток, мы с вами! pic.twitter.com/x0oPjLWCfP
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) July 11, 2020
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, told the State Duma last week that his party’s faction in Parliament was “ready to resign in protest” over the arrest.
“Let the whole world learn what a mess this country is,” he said.
Putin’s government has arrested dozens of opposition politicians, journalists, and dissidents in recent years, having been suspected of involvement in the mysterious deaths of others. During the Chinese coronavirus epidemic in the country, three health workers and one policewoman died in suspicious circumstances after criticizing the Kremlin’s handling of the pandemic.
“The very fact that they could not find anything more fresh to accuse him of is a clear signal that this is an act of political repression,” Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Chatham House, told the New York Times. “They are telling local elites that if they can arrest a sitting governor for crimes going back 15 or 20 years then they can arrest anyone.”