Celebrities in Russia have joined calls for protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny as authorities prepare for what could be the biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations in years.
Rallies are due to take place on Saturday in over 60 cities and towns despite coronavirus restrictions and without official permits to protest.
The demonstrations offer the first test of support for the 44-year-old politician since he returned to Russia on Sunday following his near-fatal poisoning in August.
Despite persistent warnings that police will not tolerate the unsanctioned rallies, dozens of Russian celebrities have taken to social media to back the jailed politician and urge supporters to take to the streets.
Igor Denisov, a former captain of the national football team revered by the government, called for Mr Navalny’s release in a video statement.
“I’ve never been interested in politics and I never will,” he said in the video posted by the Sports.ru website.
“But it’s not about politics. I’d like to support Alexei Navalny and his family… He should be freed.”
Soap opera star Alexandra Bortich in an emotional speech on Instagram asked her fans to join her at the protest:
“It would be really cool if we all go on a walk on January 23rd – we all have to take that walk if we want to live in a country where human rights are respected and laws are in place.”
The growing support for the protests is spreading fast on social media, with Russian teenagers flooding TikTok with calls for joining the rallies.
Schools and universities all over the country announced an extra day of school on Saturday while students reported threats of expulsion if they are caught at the rallies.
Mr Navalny was arrested for 30 days for alleged violations of his suspended sentence, and the government now has three weeks until the next court hearing to decide whether Mr Navalny behind bars will be more of a menace to them.
The Bloomberg news agency on Friday quoted two unnamed sources close to the Russian leadership, saying that authorities are considering jailing Mr Navalny for violating the terms of his probation for three and a half years and possibly adding 10 years more under a new criminal case.
The Russian government denies any role in the nerve-agent attack that left Mr Navalny in a coma for weeks.
Ahead of the planned protests, Russian police have arrested key Navalny allies in Moscow, including his spokeswoman, and threatened to prosecute his supporters for involving minors in protests.
Mr Navalny, who is kept at a notorious Moscow jail, on Friday passed a chilling message through his lawyer: “Just in case, I declare: I have no plans to hang myself on the window bars or slit my wrists or throat with a sharpened spoon.
Public anger at Mr Navalny’s arrest was further fueled by a new YouTube investigation into President Vladimir Putin’s alleged wealth. The 90-minute video titled “Putin’s Palace,” which was put out the day after the Kremlin critic was sent to jail, has got a staggering 58 million views in three days since it was released.