MOSCOW (AP) — Russian police arrested 21 people Wednesday at a Moscow memorial rally for a human rights lawyer who was shot in a brazen, broad-daylight killing near the Kremlin two years ago.
Hundreds of people attended the rally in memory of rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasiya Baburova, whose slayings caused outrage in Russian liberal circles and in the West.
During the after-dark vigil on a central square, people at the rally released Chinese lanterns into the air, holding candles and clutching portraits of Markelov and Baburova.
Police spokesman Anatoly Lastovetsky told The Associated Press on Wednesday that people wearing masks at the rally were detained as well as those who lit flares. He said they should only be held briefly.
Markelov, 34, an authoritative lawyer whose work had angered nationalists, and Baburova, 25, a journalist walking with him from a news conference, were shot in a central Moscow street by a masked gunman.
The trial of a man and a suspected female accomplice opens in Moscow next week.
Prosecutors accuse Nikita Tikhonov, 30, and his girlfriend Yevgeniya Khasis, 26, of killing Markelov because of his work as lawyer for hate crime victims. Tikhonov gunned down Baburova as the murder witness, the prosecutors say. Both Tikhonov and Khasis, known nationalists, deny the accusations.
Investigators say they found the murder weapon in Tikhonov’s apartment a few days before his arrest in November 2009.
Neither of the suspects have an alibi because they could not recall their actions on that day, Tikhonov’s lawyer, Alexander Vasilyev, said Tuesday.
Russia has seen a string of contract-style killings of human rights advocates and journalists. Few are solved.
Nationalists have targeted labor immigrants from the Central Asia and Russia’s southern Caucasus region, accusing them of stealing jobs from ethnic Slavs and imposing their culture.
Ethnic tensions are simmering as nationalists protest the killing of a Slavic soccer fan in a fight with people from the Caucasus in early December. Around 5,000 people, including racists, rioted near the Kremlin walls, chanting “Russia for Russians!” in response to police inaction over the killing of Yegor Sviridov. A memorial rally by nationalists held at the bus stop where Sviridov was shot occurred peacefully last week.
Since the unrest, authorities have proposed tightening restrictions on public gatherings and limiting movements into the big cities.
Kremlin critics say the tensions have been deliberately fanned to justify a squeeze on the opposition movement prior to the 2012 presidential elections cycle.