More than 20,000 people took part in a rally in Moscow on Sunday in support of people facing criminal charges for protesting against the government.
Russia’s opposition hopes the demonstration, the first since a summer wave that channelled simmering discontent with President Vladimir Putin’s rule, will sustain pressure on the Kremlin to release more protesters.
Five people have already been sentenced to prison for crimes such as “mass disturbances” during the protests, while a further 12 are still facing charges.
Opposition leaders say the Kremlin is using violence — provoked almost unilaterally by riot police — to scare people away from attending. Investigators also recently opened a money-laundering investigation against opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which helped organise the protests.
Just over 25,000 people attended the rally, which city authorities had approved in advance, on Moscow’s central Sakharov Avenue, according to the White Counter, an independent monitoring group. Police put numbers at 20,000, Interfax reported.
“They let a few people out, but many more are still in jail,” Mr Navalny said in a speech at the rally. “Why did they let out the people they let out? Because they have a conscience? Because they’re ashamed? Because they have children? They let them out because they’re worried their ratings will fall.”
Moscow saw the biggest pro-democracy protests in years throughout this summer after election authorities barred several opposition candidates from running for the city council.
The protests channelled broad dissatisfaction with poor living standards under Mr Putin, then snowballed amid revulsion at the violent police tactics used to break them up, when thousands of peaceful protesters were arrested. More than 60,000 people attended the largest rally in August.
Though a small number of activists eventually defeated pro-Kremlin councillors, the opposition plans to push the Kremlin to make more concessions after several protesters were unexpectedly released.
On Thursday, a judge cleared volunteer Alexei Minyailo of charges of participating in “mass disturbances” after he produced evidence proving that he had never made it to the summer protest before police arrested him.
Last week, prosecutors asked for actor Pavel Ustinov to be released just days after he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison following a viral campaign featuring a video that proved his innocence. Five other people were also acquitted in the case.