The huge rallies in the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China present a growing headache for the Kremlin, observers say.

People carry a banner reading
People carry a banner reading "freedom for Furgal" during an unauthorised rally in support of Sergei Furgal in the Russian far eastern city of Khabarovsk on July 18, 2020. (AFP)

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Russia's Far East in a rare show of defiance against the Kremlin as they protested the arrest of a popular governor.

The huge rallies in the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China present a growing headache for the Kremlin, observers say, and come after President Vladimir Putin this month oversaw a controversial vote that allows him to extend his hold on power until 2036.

READ MORE: Russians back reforms allowing Putin to stay until 2036 in landslide vote

The protests in Khabarovsk, a city of some 600,000 people, began a week ago following the sudden arrest of popular governor Sergei Furgal in a murder probe.

While many expressed support for the arrested politician, some of the protest signs and chants were distinctly anti-Putin.

On Saturday, tens of thousands, including young people, the elderly and women with children in pushchairs marched through Khabarovsk's hilly streets in temperatures of over 30C, an AFP correspondent said.

Smaller rallies also took place in nearby cities and towns, including Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Amursk and the Pacific port of Vladivostok in next-door Primorsky Krai region.

In rallies that lasted several hours, the crowds also massed out side the building housing the regional administration, chanting "freedom!"

Protesters carried placards reading "freedom for Furgal" and cried out "as long as we are united we are invincible", as passing cars honked horns in support.

'We need him' 

Demonstrators praised the arrested governor, saying he has done a lot for the region over the past two years.

"I am defending him because I am fond of him," said Anatoly Svechin, a 49-year-old Cossack, a member of the paramilitary group traditionally loyal to the Kremlin.

Another protester, Gennady Vasin, called the governor's detention an example of "political arbitrariness".

"We don't want Sergei Ivanovich to be taken away," said Gennady Yakovlev, using Furgal's first name and patronymic. 

"We need him, we elected him."

Furgal, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, was elected with a large majority in 2018, trouncing a candidate of the ruling party backed by Putin.

During his two years in office, Furgal earned a reputation of “the people's governor.” 

He cut his own salary, ordered the sale of an expensive yacht the previous administration bought, met with protesters when rallies happened and significantly reduced flight fares for residents in remote areas. 

"Furgal became a political symbol for the residents of the region, and all accusations, no matter how grave, are from another, non-political dimension,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said in a Facebook post earlier this week.

Many of the protesters say the charges are politically motivated and question why investigators waited so long to accuse a public official who should have undergone background checks.

Investigators say Furgal organised the murders of several businessmen in the Far East in 2004 and 2005.

The protesters called for a "fair trial" for the governor, and not in Moscow, where he is being held since his arrest.

"It's our governor! And we will defend him," they shouted.

As with previous protests, the rally was not approved by the authorities, but police made no moves to disperse it.

'Putin's endless lies' 

Russia's main opposition leader Alexei Navalny cheered the protests.

"An entire city – Khabarovsk – refused to believe Putin's endless lies about the 'justice' of his courts and the 'honesty' of his elections," Navalny said on Instagram.

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Прямо сейчас, где-то в подмосковном бункере сидит В.В.Путин, провозгласивший себя царем России, смотрит на хвосты этих колонн, скрывающиеся за горизонтом, и очень расстраивается. ⠀ Целый город - Хабаровск - отказался верить бесконечному вранью Путина о "справедливости" его судов и "честности" его выборов. Не только Хабаровск, кстати. Все города Хабаровского края и даже во Владивостоке прошла акция солидарности. ⠀ Путин боится и ждет. Ждёт когда люди устанут и перестанут выходит на улицы. Тогда он, как делает это всегда, попробует арестовать лидеров протеста, а остальных разогнать. ⠀ Но Хабаровск не сдается. Сегодня на улицы вышло если не больше людей, чем в прошлые выходные, то точно не меньше. Они выбрали своего губернатора - Сергея Фургала - и если он сделал что-то не то, то пусть его судят открытым судом в Хабаровске, а не воруют и не увозят тайно в Москву, где давно организована фабрика поддельных уголовных дел, на которой трудятся тысячи проституток в судейских мантиях, прокурорских, полицейских и следственных мундирах ⠀ Трусливый жулик - мэр Хабаровска по фамилии Кравчук, заявивший, что люди выходят на улицу за деньги, сегодня сидел под столом и трясся от страха, потому что десятки тысяч пришли и скандировали "Кравчук, выходи". ⠀ Хабаровск, Комсомольск и другие города нуждаются в нашей солидарности. На федеральном ТВ полный блок. Но если каждый из нас приложит хоть немного усилий, то 90 миллионов жителей нашей страны, регулярно пользующиеся интернетом, узнают о том, что происходит в Хабаровске. (Оцените как в одном из видео карусели передают персональный привет пропагандисту Соловьёву, рассказывающему с экранов, что на митинги в Хабаровске выходит "всякая пьянь". ⠀ А те, кто в Хабаровске ещё сильнее почувствуют, что вместе с ним - вся страна. ⠀ И знают, что один из их лозунгов (последнее фото): Единая Россия, пошла вон с нашего Дальнего Востока - хочет сказать каждый о своём городе. #хабаровск #свободуфургалу #фургал #дальнийвосток

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Protesters took to the streets even after authorities warned of the dangers of the coronavirus epidemic and after the FSB security service said on Friday it managed to "prevent a terror attack" in Khabarovsk.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands also poured onto the streets of Khabarovsk and nearby towns, and hundreds protested throughout the week.

The rallies come as popular discontent is growing across the country over the authorities' handling of the coronavirus crisis and falling real incomes.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies