Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has fled his country because he says he fears political persecution if he stays.
"I kept traveling back and forth until late February, where it became clear that I might be part of this ongoing investigation of the activities of the political protesters," Kasparov told a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva on Monday, where he was receiving an award.
"Right now I have serious doubts that if I return to Moscow I may be able to travel back. So for the time being I refrain from returning to Russia," he said.
Kasparov's departures is just the latest in a string of prominent Russian who have left the country because they fear prosecution. In a statement posted later on his website, Kasparov insisted he had not emigrated permanently from Russia.
"Russia is and will always be my country," he wrote, adding that he would continue his democracy advocacy from abroad.
Kasparov was ranked the number one chess player in the world for a record 20 years, but retired from professional chess in 2005. In recent years Kasparov, who famously defeated IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer in a series of chess matches in 1996, had become a strident opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government. He co-founded a pro-democracy party and has been a prominent speaker at anti-Putin rallies that have been held over the past year and a half.
Since Putin returned to the Kremlin last year for a third term in office, authorities have begun what opposition leaders say is a calculated effort to squash dissent and intimidate opposition leaders. Russia's legislature has followed the Kremlin's lead in passing a series of new laws that make it harder for people to organize and severely increased penalties for those who hold what are deemed unsanctioned rallies. Some protest leaders had their homes searched. Last August, a trio of Russian punk feminists were sentenced to two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin stunt in a Moscow cathedral in a case that was widely seen as a message that dissent would not be tolerated.
Russian elites who have dared to fund opposition, or even independent efforts, have reportedly pulled back amid fears that they will be targeted. Indeed, two other prominent protest leaders are facing charges that they insist are trumped up in order to silence them.
Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has been called the face of the protest movement, is facing corruption charges that had previously been dismissed. Sergei Udaltsov, a left-wing activist, is under house arrest after being charged with instigating violence at a rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration last spring.
Today, a trial began against a dozen Russians accused of fighting police during that rally. Exactly who started the fighting in Bolotnaya Square is unclear. Kasparov was at the front of that march and was detained, but has not yet been charged with anything. But riot police clashed with the protesters on the eve of Putin's inauguration. By the end of the afternoon, hundreds of protesters had been arrested and several police helmets were bobbing in the nearby river.
Other high profile Russians who have fled the country fearing they are about to be targeted for what they say are political reasons include Sergei Guriev.