People protest in support of Sergey Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk region, on Saturday, July 11.
Moscow CNN  — 

Thousands of Russians protested on the streets in the country’s remote Far Eastern territory of Khabarovsk on Saturday after their governor was arrested and flown to Moscow on charges for years-old murders, in a detention criticized as a politically motivated move by President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Live feeds of the protests posted to social media from the event showed people chanting: “This is our land” and “Putin must resign,” while demanding Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal be released and brought back to the territory.

State-run media TASS reported on Thursday that Furgal had been arrested, while a video posted to YouTube by the Russian state’s Investigative Committee showed the governor being pulled from his vehicle by masked officers in fatigues, who then pat him down and put him in a van before driving away. 

Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal is escorted into a police van after a court hearing in Moscow on Friday.

The arrest comes less than two weeks after the country gave Putin the green light to serve beyond his existing term limits, in a referendum on constitutional reforms that could now see the leader cement his power until 2036. 

Furgal on Friday appeared in court in Moscow, charged with orchestrating the murders of two businessmen in 2004 and 2005 and the attempted murder of another, according to an unnamed law enforcement quoted by TASS. Furgal denied all charges. The court ordered him detained until September 9. Four other people were arrested in November in connection to the alleged murders and later testified against Furgal, according to TASS.

Furgal ran a company selling timber and metal at the time of the killings, in a region that is largely run by rival business and criminal groups. Furgal trained and worked as a neurologist and general practitioner GP before taking on his timber and metal business. 

Furgal, often referred to locally as “the people’s governor,” beat a Kremlin-backed candidate from the ruling United Russia party in the 2018 local elections. He refused to drop out of the race for the second round as his Kremlin-backed opponent had reportedly offered to allow him to serve as his deputy. He has been portrayed as disloyal to Putin and the Kremlin.

Khabarovsk police estimated between 10,000 and 12,000 people attended the demonstration, while some local media estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people took part, reporting it was the biggest public demonstration in the city’s recent history.

Furgal’s arrest is being seen by some observers as a warning from Putin to local leaders to keep their new powers in check. The President deferred much of the decision-making around the coronavirus pandemic to governors and other local leaders, a move that appears to have contributed to a recent slide in his popularity. Russia has struggled to keep its case numbers down and the pandemic has shone a light on its poorly resourced health system.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political strategist and former speechwriter for Putin, said in a Facebook post the arrest also served as a warning against opposition candidates gearing up to run in the upcoming September elections.

“Do not try to imagine that ‘coronavirus federalization’ is serious; all power that was transferred to the field during the epidemic must be returned intact,” Gallyamov wrote.

Furgal’s is the second high-profile arrest in Russia this week. On Wednesday, a former defense journalist and adviser at the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Ivan Safronov, was detained on suspicion of state treason accusations. He is scheduled to be formally charged on July 13.

The Federal Security Service said he was “performing tasks for one of NATO’s intelligence services, collecting state confidential data about Russia’s military and technical cooperation, defense and security and handing it over to its [NATO intelligence service] representative.”

Safronov’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, told Russian media the charges “obviously” stemmed from his work as a reporter and that little evidence had been submitted to support the charges. “There are no documents testifying that Ivan transferred any information to foreign citizens,” he said.

Dozens of activists and journalists joined public demonstrations in support of Safronov, saying he had been unfairly detained. Like his father, who died after mysteriously falling out of a window in 2007, Safronov has extensively covered defense, including the activities of the Russian military.