Russian authorities have ordered the blockage of a Facebook page calling for a demonstration in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is awaiting a verdict after a trial on theft charges he and his supporters call part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent.
Vadim Ampelonsky, a spokesman for Russian mass media regulator Roskomnadzor, said on December 20 that the page was ordered to be blocked inside of Russia based on a request from Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office.
Throughout the day, numerous Internet users in Russia said they were unable to access the page.
Ampelonsky told the Russian news agency Interfax that prosecutors demanded the blockage because authorities have not yet sanctioned the announced demonstration on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin.
The event is slated to be held on January 15, the day the verdict in Navalny’s trial is set to be issued.
So far 12,000 Facebook users have confirmed on the page that they will attend the planned demonstration.
A Facebook spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the company was "looking into" the matter but did not provide immediate comment.
The page remained accessible outside Russia.
The Russian newspaper “Vedomosti” quoted Ampelonsky as saying that an analogous page announcing the planned demonstration would be blocked on the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte.
Navalny associate Leonid Volkov, who administered the page hosting the Facebook group, said he received no warning that it would be deleted.
"There was no notification at all," Volkov told RFE/RL. "The group just disappeared."
The page was removed inside Russia shortly before 7 p.m. Moscow time on December 20, he added.
A new Facebook page promoting the demonstration was created shortly thereafter. Within hours, more than 7,500 users confirmed on the page that they would attend the event.
Aleksei Navalny (right) and his brother and co-defendant Oleg attend a court hearing in Moscow on December 19.
Russian prosecutors on December 19 asked a Moscow court to sentence Navalny to 10 years in prison for allegedly stealing 31 million rubles ($520,000) from two companies, including an affiliate of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher, and of laundering some of the money.
Navalny, 38, is currently serving a five-year suspended sentence for his 2013 conviction on charges of stealing 16 million rubles from a state timber company.
Prosecutor Nadezhda Ignatova said the requested 10-year sentence for Navalny would cover both the current charges and his 2013 conviction.
Prosecutors requested that Navalny’s brother, Oleg, who is also charged in the case, be sentenced to eight years in prison.
Navalny denies involvement in any of the alleged crimes in both the current trial and his theft conviction last year.
He says both cases were rigged by officials to punish him for political activities, including leading protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin and spearheading high-profile anticorruption investigations targeting powerful Russian officials.
It is not the first time that Russian authorities have targeted leading social-networking sites over content related to Navalny.
VKontakte founder Pavel Durov said in April that he sold his 12 percent stake in the company amid pressure from Russian authorities, including a request from Russian prosecutors to to shut down a page on the networking site dedicated to Navalny.
Russia’s Federal Security Service also demanded that the company hand over information about members of a VKontakte group involved in the so-called “Euromaidan” protests that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, earlier this year.
Durov, who posted scans of official documents from authorities that appeared to substantiate his claims, said he refused to cave to the demands in both cases.
Prominent Russian journalists and social-media users, as well as one former senior U.S. official, heaped criticism on Facebook on December 20, accusing the company of cowing to pressure from Russian authorities.
“We all make mistakes. [Facebook] should correct theirs in Russia [ASAP],” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted. He added that blocking the page sets a “horrible precedent” and is “bad for business.”
With reporting by “Vedomosti,” Dozhd TV, and Interfax