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Russian shaman and anti-Putin campaigner Aleksandr Gabyshev (file photo)
Russian shaman and anti-Putin campaigner Aleksandr Gabyshev (file photo)

MOSCOW -- A Russian shaman who was arrested while on a cross-country quest to "exorcise" President Vladimir Putin and drive him from the Kremlin is pressing his calls for the long-ruling leader to abandon power.

Aleksandr Gabyshev, an ethnic Yakut whose unusual protest drew a throng of followers and attracted attention nationwide, made his remarks in an interview posted on the regional news site on October 10.

"Leave, Vladimir Vladimirovich, voluntarily. Resign," said Gabyshev, whose trek coincided in part with the biggest wave of protests in Moscow since 2011-12. "This will be for the good of Russia, of Yakutia, and of the whole world."

Gabyshev offered Putin a kind of security assurance, saying: "No one will touch you. Not a single hair will fall from your head, and not a single drop of blood will be spilled." He also said he plans to continue his journey to Moscow at a later date if the president does not step down.

Gabyshev set out from his native Yakutia region in March, telling followers he expected to reach Moscow in two years. Calling Putin "a creation of dark forces," he pledged to use his shamanic powers to cast out the president's demons and free Russia from his rule.

Shaman On 8,000-Kilometer Trek 'To Topple Putin'
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Before he was detained on September 19 by masked and armed special-police troops in Buryatia, more than 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow, he had traversed a large swath of eastern Siberia and become the star of numerous YouTube videos posted by people he encountered along the way.

Shaman On Trek 'To Topple Putin' Seized By Masked Men
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Gabyshev was subsequently flown back to Yakutia, sent for testing at a psychiatric clinic, and declared mentally unfit to face trial -- a determination that rights activists and supporters have disputed. He remains under investigation on suspicion of making public calls for extremism and is forbidden to leave the regional capital, Yakutsk.

The support and attention Gabyshev received on his marathon westward journey seemed to fit into a broader current of discontent in Russia, where falling real wages have hit citizens in a sluggish economy and critics of Putin, in power for two decades and in the second year of a six-year fourth term, say elections offer little real choice.

'Seething' Political Life

In Ulan-Ude, a city that Gabyshev passed, protests over the election of a pro-Kremlin mayoral candidate in a vote demonstrators believed was rigged mixed with anger over the shaman’s arrest. The subsequent police crackdown on protesters only fueled the outrage, even prompting one National Guard officer to publicly urge colleagues to refrain from using force.

In the interview posted on October 10, Gabyshev -- dismissed by some Russians as wacky and hailed by others as a bellwether for shifting public sentiment -- appeared acutely aware of the support his mission had garnered.

"Greet my legendary brigade, carry it in your arms," he urged people, praising those who followed him on his journey and predicting they would join him when, and if, it resumes. "They’re not alone. All of Russia stands behind them."

Despite being barred from leaving Yakutsk, Gabyshev nevertheless said he plans to take up his trek again and suggested that time is on the side of Russians calling for change.

"Political life will begin to seethe. It's already seething," he said. "Before, people were [living] in fear, but they have tasted freedom. And that's an irreversible process."

Michail Benyash appears in court during his trial in Krasnodar.
Michail Benyash appears in court during his trial in Krasnodar.

A Russian lawyer and human rights activist has been found guilty of attacking police and fined 30,000 rubles ($468) by a Krasnodar court in connection with his detention while he was trying to provide legal advice to protesters being taken into police custody at an anti-government rally a year ago.

Mikhail Benyash had faced up to five years in prison, and investigators were reportedly seeking a larger fine.

International rights group Amnesty International has called the charges against Benyash "politically motivated."

He has spent the past decade working on civil and criminal cases and "has been providing legal assistance to the participants of rallies which were not officially approved," according to Frontline Defenders, a Dublin-based group that seeks to protect "at-risk" human rights defenders.

Benyash was arrested on September 9, 2018, in Krasnodar, where he went to provide legal assistance to participants in an unsanctioned protest during a wave of public rallies against Russian pension reform.

He was initially ordered to spend two weeks in jail in September 2018 for allegedly disobeying police.

Later, he was charged with "using violence against a government official," leading to this latest conviction.

In April, Benyash was ordered to pay around 50,000 rubles in compensation for his time in custody.

Some of more than a dozen fellow lawyers who testified in Benyash's defense linked his case to a perceived escalation of violence by security forces over the past several years in Russia.

The car of a lawyer representing Benyash's defense team's lone witness -- who testified to have seen police mistreatment of Benyash -- was set on fire outside her home in Krasnodar in November 2018.

Frontline Defenders said it believed the arson attack was a reprisal for Lyudmila Aleskandrova's work in cases like Benyash's, involving police abuses.

Investigators claimed Benyash attacked and bit officers in a police vehicle after his detention.

Benyash said it was the other way around, and images shared after he was taken into custody showed multiple abrasions and bruising on his face and arms.

Police said Benyash had inflicted the injuries to himself by slamming his head into the vehicle's windows and trying to escape.

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