A Russian opposition activist who became the first person charged under a strict new protest law has reportedly fled to neighboring Ukraine, where he will seek political asylum.
Vladimir Ionov, 76, was set to deliver his final statement to a Moscow court this week in his trial on charges of attending more than two unauthorized public events during a six-month period, which under legislation enacted last year can result in a potential 1 million-ruble fine ($14,000) or up to five years in prison.
Rights activists call the new law a menacing tool to crack down on dissent.
Ionov's protests have spanned a wide range of topics but have included strident criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and support for opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.
Prosecutors last month asked Moscow's Preobrazhenksy Court to hand Ionov a three-year suspended sentence, but he reportedly did not want to take any chances.
Instead, he has crossed the border into Ukraine, where he was staying in the eastern city of Kharkiv with his girlfriend, Russian media reported on December 21.
Ionov had previously vowed to continue his opposition protests, even after members of a pro-government group assaulted him in October while he was demonstrating near the Kremlin.
Ionov's mobile phone was switched off on December 21, and neither his lawyer, Olga Dinze, nor his girlfriend, Olga Braun, responded immediately to requests for comment.
But the website Grani.ru quoted Ionov as saying that he decided to seek refuge in Ukraine because of his relationship with Braun.
"At this moment, I'd like to avoid jail," Grani.ru quoted him as saying. "When I was alone, I didn't care at all. Now I'm not alone. I'm with my beloved, and her constitution is much more delicate than mine. I made this decision out of concern and love for her."
The news portal Rosbalt.ru quoted an unidentified source as saying that Ionov will seek political asylum in Ukraine, where a pro-Western government has ruled since former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, was unseated after fleeing to Russia amid mass street protest in February 2014.
Yanukovych's ouster triggered events that led to Moscow annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula last year and a bloody war between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014.
While Ionov was the first person charged under the new law allowing prison sentences for repeat attendance at unsanctioned rallies, another opposition activist this month became the first to be convicted under the legislation.
A Moscow on December 7 found activist Ildar Dadin guilty of "repetitive violation of the regulations on public events" and sentenced him to three years in prison the same day.
Amnesty International called the sentence a "shocking and cynical attack on freedom of expression."
"This cynical move shows that compared to the drawn out criminal proceedings against peaceful protesters in the past, the authorities have now created a shortcut for imprisoning activists. It is more dangerous to be a peaceful activist in Russia than at any time in recent years," Amnesty said in a statement.
Ionov's final statement to the court had previously been postponed several times due to his health problems.
He told Grani.ru that he believes he will ultimately return to Russia.
"Russia is my homeland, and I think that soon there will be serious changes [there]," he was quoted as saying. "God willing, these changes will happen without any blood whatsoever."