Massive protest against governor’s arrest challenges Kremlin

People hold various posters supporting Khabarovsk region’s governor Sergei Furgal, during an unsanctioned protest in support of Sergei Furgal, who was interrogated and ordered to be held in jail for two months, in Khabarovsk, 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, July 25, 2020. Many thousands marched across Khabarovsk to protest the arrest of the region’s governor on murder charges, continuing a wave of protests that has lasted for two weeks. (AP Photo/Igor Volkov)

KHABAROVSK, Russia (AP) — Tens of thousands of people marched Saturday across the Russian city of Khabarovsk on the border with China to protest the arrest of the regional governor on murder charges, continuing a wave of protests that has lasted for two weeks in a challenge to the Kremlin.

Sergei Furgal has been in a Moscow jail since his arrest on July 9, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has named an acting successor. Protesters in Khabarovsk see the charges against Furgal as unsubstantiated and demand that he stand trial at home.

“People are offended,” said Dmitry Kachalin, one of the protesters. “I think people take to the streets because their vote in the 2018 election was taken away.”

Unlike Moscow, where police usually move quickly to disperse unsanctioned opposition protests, authorities haven’t interfered with unauthorized demonstrations in Khabarovsk, apparently expecting them to fizzle out over time.

But daily protests, peaking at weekends, have gone on for two weeks, reflecting anger against what local residents see as Moscow’s disrespect of their choice and simmering discontent with Putin’s rule. Local officials’ attempts to discourage people from joining the demonstrations by warning about the risk of coronavirus infection have been unsuccessful.

“We had enough,” said protester Anastasia Schegorina. “We elected the governor and we want to be heard and decide ourselves what to do with him. Bring him here, and a fair and open trial will decide whether to convict him or not.”

Authorities suspect Furgal of involvement in several murders of businessmen in 2004 and 2005. He has denied the charges, which date back to his time as a businessman with interests focusing on timber and metals.

A lawmaker on the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party ticket, Furgal won the 2018 gubernatorial election even though he had refrained from campaigning and publicly supported his Kremlin-backed rival.

His victory was a humiliating setback to the main Kremlin party, United Russia, which also has lost its control over the regional legislature. During his time in office, Furgal earned a reputation as a “people’s governor,” cutting his own salary, ordering the sale of an expensive yacht that the previous administration had bought and offering new subsidies to the population.

“We want to protect Furgal,” said Evgenia Selina, who joined Saturday’s protest. “If we hadn’t elected him, he would have been living quietly with his family and working at the State Duma. He would have had a normal life.”

Mikhail Degtyaryov, a federal lawmaker whom Putin named Monday to succeed Furgal, is also a member of the Liberal-Democratic Party — a choice that was apparently intended to assuage the local residents’ anger. If that was the plan, it hasn’t worked.

Degtyaryov has refrained from facing the protesters and left the city on Saturday for an inspection trip across the region.

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

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