MOSCOW (Reuters) – Several thousand people commemorated the anniversary of the 2015 murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow on Saturday, following a clampdown on protests over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
With a minimal police presence at the scene, opposition supporters laid flowers on the bridge in central Moscow where Nemtsov was gunned down on the night of Feb. 27 six years ago.
Nemtsov briefly served as deputy prime minister in the late 1990s before joining the opposition, and Russian news agencies said the ambassadors of several Western countries were among those who attended Saturday’s commemoration.
“Nemtsov was one of the best. A decent, intelligent, handsome man and a free man. And he wanted our country to be free,” said Valeriya, 58, holding two carnations.
“Unfortunately, those who want to drive our country into obscurantism are now temporarily winning. I just want to live a normal life and not be afraid of anyone around.”
Bely Schetchik, a group that monitors attendance at protests, said more than 8,000 people had taken part in the event as of 6 p.m. local time (1500 GMT).
Allies of Navalny, who was jailed this month on parole violations he said were trumped up, have declared a moratorium on street protests until spring.
They announced the protest freeze after several nationwide rallies were broken up by police, who detained more than 11,000 people, according to a monitoring group.
But the opposition urged Muscovites to come to pay their respects to Nemtsov, while observing social distancing and wearing face masks. Several volunteers handed masks to participants.
Moscow authorities turned down a request for them to hold a commemorative march due to the pandemic, but Saturday’s gathering was allowed to go ahead.
“This is a memorial event, not a rally or a march,” said a statement signed by several opposition politicians and posted on social media.
“We recommend that you refrain from bringing posters. There is no need to give any reasons for the police to detain (participants).”
Nemtsov had been working on a report examining Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine at the time of his killing.
After his murder, opposition activists began guarding a makeshift memorial on the bridge when municipal authorities turned down a request to put up a plaque there in his honour.
City workers have taken down the memorial on several occasions over the years. Police detained eight people last week as they tried to lay flowers at the memorial after it was dismantled by police.
In 2017 a court sentenced five men to between 11 and 20 years in prison for their involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but the late politician’s allies said at the time that the people who had ordered his killing remained at large.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Helen Popper and Mark Potter)