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Thousands mass in Moscow for anti-Putin rally

Thousands of protestors on Monday filled a square in central Moscow to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin one year into his new Kremlin term, as the opposition seeks to recover the momentum of their challenge to his rule.

Organisers said tens of thousands attended the rally, which marks one year since a chaotic May 6, 2012 anti-Kremlin protest that descended into violence, and Putin’s return to the presidency a day later. Police estimated the numbers at 7,000.

The long-awaited protest was however clouded by the death of a worker earlier Monday when he was crushed to death by a massive loudspeaker as he was helping to erect the stage for the event.

The tragedy forced a last-minute shakeup of logistical plans, with organisers turning a truck into an impromptu stage at Bolotnaya Square over the Moscow river from the Kremlin.

After some called for the rally to be cancelled altogether, the organisers decided to go ahead with the original plan.

“The whole square is full. There are tens of thousands of us,” former government member turned Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, clutching a bunch of white roses, told the rally from the truck.

Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who is standing trial on what he says are trumped-up charges, joined a host of prominent Russians including actors who showed up at the rally.

Speaking earlier to reporters, Nemtsov also said the rally should go ahead despite the tragedy. “We do not have the right to forget about the people who came to this rally,” he told reporters.

Some flowers were placed by a railing in memory of the worker. Meanwhile a van from the Investigative Committee was parked right behind the stage as the investigation into the worker’s death continued.

The worker was not an opposition activist but the employee of a firm contracted to prepare the stage, organisers said.

Monday’s rally marked the protests on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a historic third presidential term that resulted in more than 400 arrests after scuffles with riot police.

The opposition also hopes the latest rally will breathe new life into the sputtering protest movement following what observers say is the toughest crackdown on dissenters of Putin’s 13 years in power.

“I think something decisive will happen today. I want real changes,” said Tatyana Pereverzova, an activist from Saint Petersburg who works for a security firm.

One protester held a hand-written placard reading “Do not let them trample the heroes of Bolotnaya” square, while another participant held a placard saying “While someone is in chains no one is free.”

More than two dozen people now face jail over their involvement in last year’s rally in a criminal probe activists have condemned as a throwback to the Stalin era.

One activist was already jailed for four and a half years for purportedly using violence in the 2012 rally, while another was sentenced for two-and-a-half years.

Anti-corruption blogger Navalny, who faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of embezzling half a million dollars in a timber deal, said before the start of the rally that Russians should not remain indifferent to the future of the country.

“Life is always about the struggle of good and evil,” Navalny, the most charismatic of the opposition’s leading figures, wrote in a blog post. “And about the imminent victory of good in the end.”

Prosecutors warned the opposition against any provocations including any attempts to hold a march through the city in addition to the rally.

The US embassy in Moscow called on US nationals to stay away from the protest, saying: “The potential for confrontation cannot be ruled out.”

In Russia’s second city Saint Petersburg some 500 people gathered in the city centre, some holding white balloons featuring Putin.