Moscow: Russia released an opposition leader on Saturday after his arrest 15 days ago at an anti-government rally that had been authorised by officials.
Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was detained on December 31 after leaving a rally at which he called for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin`s ouster. Police said the 51-year-old Nemtsov was trying to attend a second, unauthorised demonstration, charges he denied.
A court sentenced him to 15 days in prison, drawing outrage in the West and leading Amnesty International to name him a prisoner of conscience. The arrest sparked an unusually prolonged string of daily protests in Moscow by scores of Nemtsov`s supporters, dozens of whom were also detained by police.
"They tried to break and scare me, but they didn`t succeed," Nemtsov said minutes after his release. "I`m full of strength and energy. I just need to recover," he said, complaining that he had been kept in "medieval conditions" for the first two days of his sentence.
In recent years, Russia has persistently stifled opposition groups by granting them permission to rally only rarely and swiftly breaking up any attempts to hold unsanctioned gatherings.
In response, opposition supporters have rallied on the last day of every month with 31 days, a nod to the 31st Article of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right of assembly. In October and again in December, authorities gave rare approval to the end-of-the-month gatherings.
Nemtsov was a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and helped form the liberal Union of Right Forces party. The party lost all its seats in Parliament in the 2003 elections that saw the pro-Kremlin United Russia party gain overwhelming domination of the legislature. Since 2008, Nemtsov has been one of the leaders of the Solidarity group.
The US State Department, as well as Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, have expressed concern about Nemtsov`s arrest, prompting angry responses from Russian politicians who routinely bristle at suggestions the country is backsliding on democracy and human rights.
Last month, Putin suggested live on television that Nemtsov and his associates stole money during their time in government and harbour dark plans to return the country to the corrupt chaos of the 1990s. President Dmitry Medvedev said around the same time that participants in unsanctioned rallies should serve a mandatory prison sentence instead of a mere fine.