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Women form human chains in Russia in support of Navalny’s wife | Alexei Navalny

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Several hundred women formed human chains in Moscow and St Petersburg on Sunday, using Valentine’s Day to express support for the wife of the jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and other political prisoners.

About 300 women gathered on Arbat Street in Moscow’s city centre holding a long white ribbon in temperatures of -13C (8F).

The gathering came after authorities last week sentenced Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, to nearly three years in prison and unleashed a crackdown on his supporters.

Alexei Navalny makes a heart gesture standing in a cage during a court hearing in Moscow earlier this month
Alexei Navalny makes a heart gesture while standing in a cage during a court hearing in Moscow this month. Photograph: AP

Female activists said they wanted to express solidarity with Navalny’s wife, Yulia, and other women who have become victims of the crackdown.

“By forming a chain we want to show that we are for love and against violence,” Darya Obraztsova, a 22-year-old student, said in Moscow.

“Very brave and nice young women have gathered here,” she said, adding she wanted “freedom and justice” for Russia.

In the city of St Petersburg, about 100 women formed a similar chain near a monument to victims of political repression.

Some clutched flowers, while others recited poems by Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s most beloved poets.

“Only love can win over evil,” 25-year-old Valeriya Stepanova said.

The new form of opposition rallies is similar to human chains formed by female activists in neighbouring Belarus.

Navalny was arrested and jailed upon returning to Russia last month following treatment in Germany for a nerve agent poisoning.

His jailing sparked widespread protests across Russia that have seen at least 10,000 people detained.

After the crackdown Navalny’s team postponed mass rallies until the spring or summer, but urged supporters to use Valentine’s Day to try out new and safer forms of protest.

Navalny’s right-hand man, Leonid Volkov, has called on Russians to stage courtyard protests on Sunday evening, lighting their phone flashlights for 15 minutes and posting pictures of the gatherings on social media.

Navalny’s team released pictures and video of small-scale gatherings that took place in eastern Russia and Siberia earlier on Sunday, with Russians lighting flashlights, sparklers and small lanterns.

“Love is stronger than fear,” said an electronic ticker tape on a residential high-rise in the Siberian city of Tomsk, according to a video released by Navalny’s team.

Russian officials have accused the opposition of acting on orders from Nato and warned that anyone violating the law would be punished.

“We will not play cat and mouse with anyone,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.

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