MOSCOW (AP) — Several thousand opposition supporters marched through the Russian capital on Sunday to demand the release of people they consider political prisoners.
The demonstration was intended primarily to show support for those who were arrested after May 2012 clashes between protesters and police on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term. Their arrests and trials were widely seen as part the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent.
More than 5,000 protesters chanted slogans such as "Free Political Prisoners" and carried a big poster that read "End Putinism, free hostages!" The march, which was sanctioned by authorities, went on peacefully amid a heavy police presence.
The number of demonstrators was significantly lower than the organizers' expectations of 20,000. The relatively low attendance reflected the sense of weariness among the opposition movement, which has been losing its energy after a series of major anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012, which attracted 100,000 or more.
Alexei Navalny, a charismatic 37-year old anti-corruption lawyer who has emerged as the most prominent opposition leader, told reporters Sunday that the rally was needed to raise pressure for the release of those arrested. He warned opposition supporters that they shouldn't expect a quick victory.
"The truth is that we need to get ready for a long and more difficult struggle," he said. In July, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison on charges widely seen as political, but he was released the next day in what some saw as a government attempt to make the Moscow mayoral race, in which he took part, look more competitive.
Navalny won 27 percent of September's vote, finishing a strong second behind the Kremlin-backed incumbent. The surprisingly strong performance cemented his positions as the No.1 Russian opposition politician.
Earlier this month, a court replaced a prison term for Navalny with a suspended sentence. The protesters carried pictures of those who are on trial for their role in the May 2012 protest that turned violent. Some also held pictures of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who marked 10 years in prison this week since his arrest on charges widely seen as a punishment for challenging Putin's power.
Some people carried pictures of the two members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who are serving two-year sentences for an irreverent protest against Putin. One woman carried a colorful umbrella with the images of masked Pussy Riot performers.
After Putin's inauguration, the Kremlin has sought to stifle dissent with a series of arrests of opposition activists and repressive legislation that sharply hiked fines for participants in unsanctioned protests and imposed tough new restrictions on non-government organizations.
"We want to show the government, the Russians, the global community yet another time that Russia is not a democratic country, but is governed by the police," rally organizer Vitaly Zalomov said.