A campaign in support of jailed Russian demonstrators gained momentum Wednesday, with celebrities, priests and teachers calling for their release and hundreds of people protesting outside the presidential administration.
This month, six people received jail terms ranging from two to four years following a wave of anti-government protests in Moscow.
The sentencing of young actor Pavel Ustinov caused particular outrage, sparking a rare solidarity drive among popular actors and other Kremlin-friendly celebs.
Dozens of stars with millions of followers on social media who usually steer clear of politics took to Instagram, saying Ustinov, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for violence against police, was an innocent bystander.
On Wednesday, the campaign grew as hundreds of people including popular actors staged one-man pickets outside the offices of President Vladimir Putin’s administration.
It is the only kind of demonstration Russians are permitted to hold without giving prior notice to the authorities.
One by one, they held a placard calling for Ustinov’s to be freed while others waited their turn in a long line.
Some said all the jailed protesters should walk free, brandishing a placard “I am/We are the entire country”.
“There’s a feeling that something went wrong,” actress Alexandra Bortich said at the protest.
“We want Pavel and other wrongfully convicted people to be released,” director Dmitry Sobolev told AFP.
Musician Anton Sevidov of synthpop band Tesla Boy suggested Russian society was slowly waking up.
“It’s cool that people come out in support of Ustinov,” he told AFP.
“Unfortunately, politicians did not learn anything from the history of our country.”
Opposition leader Lyubov Sobol also appeared at the protest, sporting a T-shirt in support of one of the jailed activists.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin would take the campaign into account and stressed that the actor’s defence planned to appeal the verdict.
“Perhaps we should wait for the results of this appeal,” he said.
In a video address, Andrei Zvyagintsev, director of the Oscar-nominated film “Leviathan”, urged Putin to have the actor freed.
The celebrities have compared Ustinov’s case with that of journalist Ivan Golunov, detained in June on trumped-up drug charges.
He was freed after an unprecedented solidarity campaign, which saw three major newspapers publish the same front page under the headline “I am/we are Ivan Golunov”.
In a new twist, the ruling United Russia party joined the chorus of support, with its general council secretary Andrei Turchak defending Ustinov.
– ‘ Perjury is sin’ –
Over the summer, tens of thousands took part in protests demanding a fair vote after allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were barred from standing for the Moscow parliament in September polls.
More than a dozen people faced prison time on charges of mass unrest and attacking policemen.
Seven were jailed, including a man who was sentenced to five years over a controversial tweet.
Investigators dropped the mass unrest charges against five men.
With public pressure mounting, a court on Wednesday returned the case of one protester, Aidar Gubaidulin, to the prosecutors and released him from custody.
In an unprecedented move, more than 90 Orthodox clerics have joined the campaign.
In a letter published by the news site Pravmir which covers religious and other issues, the priests said the court rulings appeared aimed at “intimidating” society.
They warned riot police and others against perjury, referencing the Bible.
“A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall perish,” they said.
In another open letter, nearly 800 teachers slammed “egregious lawlessness” and called for those who jailed the protesters to be punished.
Separately, more than 70 foreigners including politicians, writers and creators of the hit TV series “Game of Thrones”, condemned “the political repression and lawlessness” in Russia.