KHABAROVSK, Russia -- Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk to protest against the arrest of their regional governor on murder charges, chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin.
Supporters of Sergei Furgal on July 11 gathered on the central Lenin Square for a spontaneous demonstration before marching toward Komsomolskaya Square, carrying posters with slogans such as "I Am Sergei Furgal" and "Free Furgal."
Participants shouted, "Shame on Moscow!", "Putin's a thief!", and "Down with the tsar!” -- references to President Vladimir Putin.
“We need to defend our choice, the choice of the people, and we are not afraid of the consequences," a protester told RFE/RL, calling Furgal's arrest politically motivated.
A member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Furgal was elected in 2018 in a major upset of the ruling United Russia party.
Estimates by local media and opposition put the number of demonstrators at between 5,000 and 35,000, with the news website DVHab.ru describing the rally as a “historic event” for the city of about 600,000 inhabitants.
Smaller rallies were also held in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Elban, Solnechny, and other cities in the region.
The Khabarovsk government announced later in the day that it would extend coronavirus restrictions, which include the banning of mass gatherings, throughout the region until at least July 26.
The demonstrations come a day after a Moscow court ordered the 50-year-old Furgal held in pretrial detention for two months.
Furgal has pleaded not guilty to ordering the murders and attempted murders of several businessmen in 2004 and 2005.
Protesters questioned why prosecutors decided to arrest Furgal now, 15 years after the alleged crimes, and demanded his trial be held in Khabarovsk and in a transparent manner.
He was detained by the Investigative Committee on July 9, sparking outrage from his party.
LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky told the State Duma on July 9 that the LDPR faction in parliament was “ready to resign in protest” against the arrest.
"Let the whole world learn what a mess this country is," Zhirinovsky told the parliament’s lower chamber earlier this week.
Also on July 10, two lawmakers in the Khabarovsk region, also members of LDPR, were arrested on fraud charges and will be held in custody until September, a district court representative was quoted as saying.
The two lawmakers, Sergei Kuznetsov and Dmitry Kozlov, deputy chairman of the regional parliament, used to run the Amurstal steel plant.