Moscow:Several thousand Muscovites marched Sunday in frigid temperatures in memory of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down three years ago, a rare sanctioned opposition gathering ahead of next month's presidential vote.
Ordinary Muscovites and prominent opposition figures including Alexei Navalny thronged the streets in the centre of the Russian capital where the thermometer dipped below minus 14 Celsius (7 Fahrenheit).
"This is not just a march in honour of Nemtsov, this is a protest against the authorities," said Irina Bagayeva, 61. Many carried flags, portraits of Nemtsov, flowers and placards reading "I am not afraid" and "We remember, we won't forgive". Some chanted "Putin is a thief" and "Nemtsov is a hero of Russia".
The gathering came ahead of the March 18 presidential election widely expected to extend President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin rule until 2024, making him the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin.
Moscow police, which are often accused of downplaying the popularity of opposition events, said some 4,500 people showed up. Pro-opposition monitors estimated the turnout at more than 7,000.
Nemtsov, one of the most vocal Putin critics, was gunned down shortly before midnight on February 27, 2015, while walking across a bridge a short distance from the Kremlin. In 2017, a court found a former security force officer from Chechnya guilty of murdering Nemtsov and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
Four other men were found guilty of involvement in the killing. But Nemtsov's family and allies insist the authorities have failed to bring the masterminds to justice and point the finger of blame at Chechnya's Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov - and the Kremlin itself.
"The Putin regime killed a man but the masterminds have not been found," one of the participants, Mikhail Kononenko, a 20-year-old student, told AFP. - 'When we send Putin packing' - Opposition politicians said that three years after Nemtsov's murder the atmosphere in the country had deteriorated, with tolerance for dissent shrinking even further.
"Those who ordered the assassination are free, no one has looked for them," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the liberal party Yabloko. Another opposition politician, Ilya Yashin , said the masterminds would be brought to justice "when we send Putin packing".
Many at the Moscow rally said they would not vote in the presidential election because the result was a foregone conclusion. Russia's top opposition leader Navalny, who took part in the march with his wife, has been barred from running for president over a criminal conviction he says is politically motivated.
He faces up to 30 days in prison after being charged over an unauthorised January 28 protest when he urged Russians to boycott the election. - 'No air' - In the second city of Saint Petersburg several hundred people turned out, some carrying placards that read "Down with the evil empire" and "Putin, where is the mastermind?" One of the participants, Sergei Arkhipov , slammed the suffocating atmosphere of Putin's Russia.
"There is no air in the country," said the 55-year-old. "Dissent is being punished." Galina Samoilenko, 38, said she was sad to see that not too many people turned up. "Perhaps people are afraid.
Or maybe they don't care." Smaller commemorative events took place in other cities across Russia. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said a commemorative plaque would be put up on the Moscow block where Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin's government, lived.APP/AFP