Russians mourn human rights giant Lyudmila Alexeyeva

Visitors pay their respects to founder of Russia’s oldest human rights group and Sakharov Prize winner Lyudmila Alexeyeva in Moscow on Dec 11, 2018.
Visitors pay their respects to founder of Russia’s oldest human rights group and Sakharov Prize winner Lyudmila Alexeyeva in Moscow on Dec 11, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russians on Tuesday (Dec 11) paid their last respects to human rights icon Lyudmila Alexeyeva, with President Vladimir Putin expected to attend a memorial ceremony despite the activist's criticism of his rule.

Ms Alexeyeva died on Saturday at the age of 91 after an extraordinary seven-decade career that saw her promote human rights during the Soviet era and in modern Russia.

Prominent opposition figures and ordinary Russians queued in the snow amid heavy security to pay their respects to the activist in central Moscow.

But Ms Alexeyeva's 77-year-old colleague Lev Ponomaryov, who is currently serving a 16-day jail sentence for calling protests, was absent after a court denied his appeal to attend.

Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who has repeatedly been jailed for organising anti-Putin demonstrations, was at the event.

Mr Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician who queued to bid farewell to Ms Alexeyeva, told AFP that Mr Putin's expected attendance was "more than contradictory".

"Ponomaryov is under arrest, but everything is closed off so that Putin can come," he said.

"He probably wants to look human. But it looks disgusting on the background of what's happening in the country," he added.

Riot police lined the streets outside Moscow's Central House of Journalists where the ceremony was taking place.

Mourners had to pass through metal detectors to get inside the building, which was cordoned off by police.

"Everyone respected her," said Ms Nataliya Magnitskaya, a pensioner who queued to bid farewell to Ms Alexeyeva.

Many carried flowers and some wore T-shirts bearing slogans in support of activists serving jail sentences in Russia.

Ms Olga Trusevich, a 54-year-old archivist, wore a T-shirt in support of Oyub Titiev - a rights activist detained in Chechnya.

Ms Alexeyeva was the leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of Russia's oldest rights organisations, which she helped found in 1976.

In the Soviet era, she campaigned against trials for dissidents and endured numerous searches and interrogations at the hands of the KGB.

Ms Alexeyeva continued to campaign for human rights in modern Russia, refusing to register the Moscow Helsinki Group as a "foreign agent" as required by a 2012 law.

She slammed Moscow's seizure of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 for "bringing shame on my country".

Ms Alexeyeva died in a Moscow hospital on Saturday after a long illness. She will be buried at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye Cemetery.