Alexei Navalny ally calls for courtyard light protests to avoid Russian police crackdown

An ally of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has urged supporters living in big cities to gather in residential courtyards with their mobile phone lights on.

Leonid Volkov wrote in a Facebook post that the new rally format could prevent police from interfering and allow anyone to participate.

Sunday’s protests have been planned to coincide with Valentine’s Day, using similar tactics to those employed during demonstrations in neighbouring Belarus.

Mr Volkov wrote: “You will raise your phone flashlights – and someone, maybe, will bring candles – and form a heart shape with them…

“You will take a picture of it from above, from one of the apartments, and post it on Instagram.”

“Let’s have social media feeds filled with thousands of shining hearts from dozens of Russian cities,” Mr Volkov continued. “No OMON (riot police), no fear.”

Mr Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested on 17 January after returning from Germany.

He had spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

Last week, a Moscow court ruled that while Mr Navalny was recovering in Germany from his exposure to novichok, he violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison.

His arrest and jailing sparked nationwide protests, with tens of thousands of people rallying across Russia for two weekends in a row in the largest outpouring of discontent in years.

Russian authorities responded with a harsh crackdown, detaining more than 11,000 people, as hundreds were handed jail terms.

Asked whether the opposition’s call to gather in courtyards can be considered unlawful, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “hard to say”, but told reporters that if someone in Russia violates the law, they will be held accountable.

Meanwhile, Germany, Poland and Sweden have each declared a Russian diplomat in their country “persona non grata”.

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The move was in retaliation to last week’s decision by Moscow to expel diplomats from the three European Union countries.

Russia had accused diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany of attending a rally in support Mr Navalny.

In a statement, EU politicians also appealed to “all EU member states to show maximum solidarity with Germany, Poland and Sweden and take all appropriate steps to show the cohesiveness and strength of our Union”.

The tit-for-tat expulsions come as EU officials ponder the future of the 27-nation bloc’s troubled relations with Russia amid deep concern that their large eastern neighbour sees democracy as a threat and wants to distance itself further from the EU.

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