An influential Russian lawmaker who is accused of sexually harassing several journalists has asked for forgiveness amid growing calls for his resignation.
State Duma member Leonid Slutsky, who has denied wrongdoing and threatened to sue his accusers for defamation, issued the appeal on Facebook on March 8, which Russia and other countries mark as International Women's Day.
It came as opposition politician Aleksei Navalny called for Slutsky's ouster and as presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak and several activists staged single-person protests outside the Duma, Russia's lower parliament house.
In a growing scandal that is testing President Vladimir Putin's ruling elite ahead of an election that seems certain to hand him a new term, at least three female journalists have accused Slutsky of sexual harassment.
"Using the occasion [of the holiday], I would like to ask forgiveness from those of you whom I have ever willingly or unwillingly caused any distress," Slutsky wrote. "Believe me, there was no ill intent."
Three women -- Yekaterina Kotrikadze, a deputy editor at RTVI television; Dozhd TV producer Darya Zhuk; and BBC Russian Service correspondent Farida Rustamova -- have in recent days accused Slutsky of sexual harassment, saying he made crude, unwanted advances, trying to kiss them and touching them inappropriately.
Navalny expressed his solidarity with the journalists and called Slutsky, the chairman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, "a repugnant lawmaker," harshly criticizing other lawmakers who had publicly supported Slutsky, 50, in the face of the accusations.
"All those who support and shield Slutsky are horrible," Navalny wrote on his website. "And Slutsky himself is not only a revolting person, who humiliates and offends people by sexually harassing them, he is also a swindler," Navalny wrote. He accused Slutsky of corruption, posting what he said was evidence that he lives a lavish lifestyle that cannot be accounted for far beyond his means and saying that he deserves a "shameful ouster" from the Duma.
Also on March 8, presidential candidate and journalist Ksenia Sobchak staged a protest in front of the State Duma holding a poster which read "Lawmakers, we do not want you!"
Sobchak also accused presidential candidate and Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky of "covering up" for Slutsky, who is a member of the LDPR .
A representative of Amnesty International staged a similar protest outside the Duma after Sobchak, holding a poster with an ironic message targeting State Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior Putin ally and former deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin.
"Mr. Volodin, are you afraid of investigating sexual harassment in the Duma? If so, change jobs!" the message read, in an apparent swipe at Volodin's own message to female journalists on the occasion of Women's Day, which said, "Is it dangerous for you to work in the Duma? If so, then change jobs."
Several other activists staged similar protests outside the Duma holding posters saying: "The Duma is a lawmaking (not some other) organ," "Mr. Slutsky, 'a little bit' also counts," and "Lawmaker Slutsky, come out, I will touch you 'a little bit.'"
According to the BBC, which cites an audiotape that Rustamova recorded at a meeting with Slutsky, he told her: "I don't feel people up. Well, OK, just a little. 'Feel people up' is an ugly expression."
With reporting by Ekho Moskvy and Vedomosti