Navalny's allies call for major protest across Russia

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny described tight controls at his prison in a letter posted Monday March 15, 2021, saying they include hourly checks during the night. Navalny's note posted on his Instagram page confirmed for the first time that he arrived at a prison colony in Pokrov in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Moscow, which stands out among Russian penitentiary facilities for its particularly strict regime. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's allies on Tuesday called for a new massive protest across the country to demand his release from prison.

In a statement posted on Navalny's website, they urged Russians to sign up for a protest on an interactive map and said they will set a date for it when the number of people willing to take part reaches at least 500,000 nationwide.

The organizers claimed in a YouTube statement that the rally would the biggest that Russia has seen.

They set up a dedicated website for the protest, inviting those willing to take part to register on the interactive map.

“When the number of us is big enough, we will choose a convenient date and stage a peaceful march in all Russian cities,” said Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief of staff who has lived abroad since 2019.

“Our main enemy is indifference, apathy, being apolitical,” said another top Navalny associate, Maria Pevchickh. “No one will give us freedom as a gift, it can't be bought. We must fight for it.”

The 44-year-old Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken opponent, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

Last month, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated — and which the European Сourt of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny’s arrest fueled a series of protests that drew tens of thousands to the streets across Russia. Authorities detained about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.

Several top Navalny associates have faced charges of violating coronavirus restrictions by calling for protests, and have been put under house arrest.

Russian officials have rejected demands from the United States and the European Union to free Navalny and stop the crackdown on his supporters.

Moscow also has rejected the European Court of Human Rights’ demand to release Navalny, describing it as unlawful and “inadmissible” meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs.

Earlier this month, Navalny posted a note confirming that he arrived at a prison colony in Pokrov in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Moscow, to serve his sentence. The facility stands out among Russian penitentiaries for its particularly strict regime.