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Anniversary Of Nemtsov's Assassination Marked With Washington Plaza


Boris Nemtsov Plaza Unveiled In Washington
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WASHINGTON -- Supporters and relatives of Boris Nemtsov have formally unveiled a new Washington, D.C., street plaza dedicated to the assassinated Russian opposition leader, as compatriots marked the third anniversary of his killing in Moscow.

The ceremony to rename the plaza -- a grassy lot opposite the Russian Embassy -- was one of the highlights of efforts in Russia, the United States, and elsewhere to honor Nemstov, who was gunned down on a bridge just meters from the Kremlin on February 27, 2015.

"Boris Nemtsov was a Russian patriot. His life and work were devoted to giving all Russians the just and accountable government to which men and women across the world aspire," Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Wess Mitchell said at the ceremony.

"He understood that the Russian nation can achieve greatness only through respecting the fundamental rights, of which they have so often been deprived in the past and continue to be deprived of today."

A Russian court convicted five men from Chechnya of the murder and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. But Nemtsov supporters suspect his killing was ordered at a higher level, and say justice will not be done until the person or people behind it are identified and prosecuted.

In a ceremony held at Moscow's Sakharov Center, photos of Nemtsov taken during different periods of his life were presented and documentary My Friend, Boris Nemtsov was screened.

Politicians, including presidential candidates Grigory Yavlinsky and Ksenia Sobchak, opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Gennady Gudkov, rights defender Lev Ponomaryov, and representatives of the Lithuanian and Swedish embassies were among those who laid flowers at a makeshift memorial on the bridge near the Kremlin where Nemtsov was gunned down three years ago.

ALSO READ: RFE/RL's Last Interview With Nemtsov -- 'We Must Free Russia From Putin'

Two days earlier, thousands of Russians marched in Moscow and other cities, one of the largest public displays commemorating Nemtsov's death to date.

WATCH: Rallies were held across Russia on February 25 to commemorate slain Kremlin critic and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov ahead of the third anniversary of his killing.

Rallies In Russian Cities Commemorate Nemtsov
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The Kremlin has made no public statements about the anniversary of his death, though the fact that permission was given on February 25 for a march in Moscow was seen as a sign of quiet, if not reluctant, approval.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, was an outspoken critic of the current president, Vladimir Putin, and had sought to build a viable opposition movement.

Supporters and relatives have sought permission to erect a memorial at the site of his killing, or on his apartment building in Moscow, but authorities repeatedly refused. Makeshift memorials of flowers, photographs, and candles have been repeatedly placed at the site of his death only to be quickly swept away by sanitation workers.

His supporters then sought to rename the vacant lot across from the Russian Embassy in northwest Washington after Nemtsov, in what would amount to a symbolic thumb-in-the-eye gesture.

Last year, Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to rename the plaza, but the legislation ended up being put on hold, after a request from the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Three people familiar with the matter told RFE/RL that Corker intervened with the legislation after being requested to do so by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson following last summer's G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had given Tillerson a list of outstanding grievances that Moscow had toward Washington, the people said, and the Nemtsov Plaza issue was one of them.

A spokesperson for Corker did not immediately reply to an e-mail from RFE/RL seeking comment.

Washington, D.C.'s status as a federal entity gives Congress direct oversight of the city's operations.

Nemtsov supporters, including longtime aide Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., then enlisted the help of the Washington city council, which passed legislation renaming the plaza last month.

At the ceremony attended by scores of people and journalists, and several prominent U.S. senators and representatives, Kara-Murza said the renaming was a "patriotic act."

"Boris Nemtsov did not become president, but he did become something very, very important. To many people in our country...he became the face and the embodiment of a very different Russia," he said. "A freer, more democratic, more hopeful Russia."

Nemtsov was "an outspoken critic of Putin and his regime's corruption," Rubio told the crowd, "of its invasion of Ukraine, and this ultimately led him to this tragic fate that he suffered, a fate that has befallen to many of those who dare to criticize Vladimir Putin."

Echoing a statement issued earlier, Mitchell said the United States was calling on "Russia’s leaders to protect the basic rights of their own people. Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, freedom of association."

"These are what Boris Nemtsov stood for. And what he died for," he said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.