Navalny ally urges Russians to light candles in Valentine's Day protest


FILE PHOTO: Leonid Volkov, chief of staff of Navalny's team, speaks during a news conference with "Cinema for Peace" founder Jaka Bizilj after Bizilj's foundation arranged for an ambulance aircraft to head to Omsk to pick up Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Berlin, Germany August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

MOSCOW (Reuters) - An ally of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny urged Russians on Tuesday to gather near their homes for a brief Valentine's Day protest this weekend, shining their mobile phone torches and lighting candles in heart shapes to flood social media.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against the jailing of Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, who says he is being persecuted for political reasons.

Police have detained more than 11,000 people at what they say were unsanctioned protests that the Kremlin has condemned as illegal and dangerous.

Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally based outside Russia, called on people to gather in residential courtyards near their homes at 1700 GMT on Sunday and to stand there for several minutes shining their mobile phone torches.

He said the format, reminiscent of tactics used by the anti-government opposition in neighbouring Belarus, should help distance protesters from the police.

He suggested people bring candles and make heart shapes with them to mark Valentine's Day, and photograph them from above in an event he said would last just 15 minutes.

Supporters, he said, could then flood social media with images of the protest. The idea for the candles was inspired by the heart sign Navalny made to his wife in court as he was jailed, Volkov said.

"Thought you were the only one in the whole big block who is not indifferent to what's happening in the country? You'll see that's not the case," he wrote in a post on the Telegram messenger.

"No OMON (riot police), no fear. Maybe it'll seem like these 15 minutes will change nothing - but in fact they will change everything."

Separately, an activist called on women to form a human chain on a pedestrianised street in central Moscow to show solidarity for Navalny's wife Yulia and women who have been caught in the police crackdown over the protests.

"CAT AND MOUSE"

Volkov's announcement prompted the Russian foreign ministry to accuse Navalny's allies of acting as NATO agents and of receiving instructions from the military alliance to disrupt Russian politics.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Volkov had planned to halt the protests, but then changed his mind after holding a virtual meeting on Monday with representatives of the European Union, Britain and the United States.

"This is essentially a meeting of NATO countries. NATO has instructed the 'opposition', or rather its agents of influence, on how to continue their undermining work more deviously."

The Kremlin said anyone who broke the law would be brought to account.

"We're not going to play cat and mouse with anyone, but there's no doubt our law enforcement agencies will hold the guilty parties to account if the law is broken," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Navalny was arrested in January after returning to Russia for the first time since being poisoned last August in Siberia with what many Western countries said was a nerve agent. The Kremlin has questioned whether he was really poisoned.

He was jailed on Feb. 2 after a court ruled he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence in an embezzlement case he says was trumped up.

The case has sparked tensions between Russia and the West and renewed talk of sanctions.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny ally, published a letter addressed to British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab urging London to target a list of 35 people identified as being close to Putin.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Anton Zverev and Dmitry Antonov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Alison Williams)

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