Russia frees opposition leader Navalny as Kremlin race heats up
Lawyer seeking to replace president Vladimir Putin was scheduled to address a rally within hours of leaving prison
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released on Sunday after a 20-day jail term for organising protests against president Vladimir Putin.
The charismatic 41-year-old lawyer, who has declared his intention to stand for president next year, was released in a secret location in Moscow to evade media attention.
"Hi. I'm out," Mr Navalny wrote on Instagram, posting a picture of himself on a street. A photographer working for his team later posted photos of him meeting colleagues at the office of his anti-corruption foundation.
The Kremlin race has heated up during Mr Navalny's time behind bars, with television star Ksenia Sobchak declaring herself a candidate to replace president Vladimir Putin.
Mr Navalny said he was "ready to work" and would meet supporters later on Sunday at a rally in the southern city of Astrakhan. The event in the city 1,300 kilometres south-east of Moscow has permission from the authorities.
He wrote jokingly that while in jail he had read 20 books, learnt a few words of the Kyrgyz language and drank 80 litres of tea.
Earlier on Sunday, supporters hung a banner from a bridge close to the Kremlin reading: "It's time to get rid of Putin and time to elect Navalny."
Mr Navalny informally launched a presidential bid in December last year and has since opened campaign offices and held rallies countrywide to consolidate supporters.
Earlier this year he served sentences of 15 days and 25 days for organising unauthorised anti-Putin protests.
During his latest jail term, his supporters held rallies on Mr Putin's birthday on October 7, with more than 270 detained nationwide.
He has faced a constant stream of official bans on public meetings as well violent attacks on him and his supporters and vandalism of his offices.
Mr Navalny has yet to comment on Sobchak's presidential bid but earlier condemned rumours of her possible candidacy, saying this was a "rather disgusting Kremlin game" and calling her a "liberal laughing stock".
Sobchak, 35, launched her bid to stand on Wednesday and calls herself "the candidate against all". She is the daughter of Mr Putin's late mentor, Anatoly Sobchak.
The presidential race has yet to officially begin and Mr Putin has not yet declared his participation in the March 2018 election. However he is widely expected to seek and win a six-year term that would extend his rule till 2024.
Sobchak has vowed to back Mr Navalny's bid to be included in the race — as electoral authorities say his suspended sentence for fraud makes him ineligible to stand until 2028.
However many liberals see her as a Kremlin-backed spoiler candidate brought in to give the race a veneer of opposition.
Mr Putin worked closely with her father when he was a liberal Saint Petersburg mayor, and has acknowledged his importance as a mentor.
Russian media have focused on Sobchak's past as host of the reality show Dom-2, or House-2, where contestants have to form couples, as well as of Russia's Next Top Model.
"She's going to work according to her profession at the elections: in order to turn non-contested presidential pseudo-polls into the biggest show of 2018," wrote Vedomosti business daily in a Friday editorial.
Mr Navalny sometimes shared a podium with Sobchak at mass rallies against Putin in 2011 and 2012. While he wowed crowds with punchy oratory, Sobchak faced a hostile audience who doubted her sudden backing of opposition causes.
She paid a price for her opposition campaigning, however, losing lucrative television work, and now hosts a show on the independent Dozhd TV channel.
Forbes' Russian edition estimates her net worth at US$2.1 million (Dh7.7m).
Sobchak is set to present her platform to journalists in Moscow on Tuesday.
Updated: October 22, 2017 02:18 PM