MOSCOW — Accusations that security forces tortured a leftist activist into confessing to a plot to overthrow President Vladimir Putin have triggered fears of a return to Soviet-era political repression and sparked a diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Washington.
Anti-Putin protesters braved freezing rain in their most recent demonstration in central Moscow to show support for Leonid Razvozzhayev, an activist from the Left Front opposition political movement. Mr. Razvozzhayev says he was abducted by "masked men" while seeking political asylum at a U.N. office in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Oct. 19 and then forced to admit to the alleged plot.
"If we do not stand up to be counted, we will face a long, political winter," Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov told the rally, as an ice storm lashed the Russian capital last week.
Demonstrators at the rally held photographs of Mr. Razvozzhayev and about two dozen other people, who protest leaders say are "political prisoners" jailed for their opposition to Mr. Putin's almost 13-year-rule. Mr. Putin has insisted that no one is in prison for opposing his policies.
"There is no such thing as left-wing, right-wing or nationalists anymore," former world chess champion and Putin foe Garry Kasparov told the crowd estimated at around 1,000. "We must all unite now to rid ourselves of this regime."
International human rights organizations have called for an investigation into Mr. Razvozzhayev's disappearance from Kiev.
"For an asylum seeker to simply vanish while lodging his asylum claims and then reappear in the country he fled is profoundly shocking," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"There needs to be a serious investigation to determine whether any Ukrainian officials were involved and to hold accountable any who played a role."
A spokesman for Ukraine's Interior Ministry has said it is likely Russian special forces had seized Mr. Razvozzhayev.
Mr. Razvozzhayev told human rights workers who visited him in a Moscow pre-trial detention center late last month that his abductors had held him in the basement of an abandoned building for two days without food or water.
"They told me: 'If you don't answer our questions, your children will be killed,'" he told the rights workers. "The aim was to make me sign a confession."
Mr. Razvozzhayev's confession also incriminated Mr. Udaltsov and another activist, Konstantin Lebedev, in the alleged plot.
Mr. Udaltsov was charged Oct. 26 with planning mass disorder and released on a pledge not to leave Moscow. Mr. Lebedev has been in custody since earlier this month. All three suspects face up to 10 years behind bars if found guilty.
Russian authorities say Mr. Razvozzhayev reported to their Moscow headquarters on Oct. 21 and was in his "right mind" when he signed a 10-page confession. But Mr. Razvozzhayev, who is also an aide to parliamentary lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, retracted his confession four days later, when his lawyer was permitted to visit him for the first time since his arrest.
The Moscow protest to support Mr. Razvozzhayev came on the day that Russian commemorates the victims of political repression. Around 1.7 million people were executed in the Soviet Union as "counter-revolutionaries" in 1937 and 1938 at the height of purges by dictator Joseph Stalin.
A former aide to President Boris Yeltsin has warned that Russia is in danger of a return to its totalitarian past.
"Stalinist terror consisted of a chain reaction of confessions, where one tortured person gave up others," said Georgy Satarov, who also heads a Moscow anti-corruption think-tank.
"Now the same thing is starting to happen again. We must all understand that once this kind of avalanche begins, anybody can fall under it. Nobody is safe."