Chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was flying back to Russia on Sunday for the first time since a near-fatal poisoning attack last summer, facing the threat of imminent arrest after his plane lands in Moscow.
A flight carrying Navalny from Germany, where the 44-year-old spent months recovering from the August poisoning, took off from Berlin's Brandenburg Airport just after 3:15 pm (1415 GMT), according to AFP journalists on the plane.
Wearing a blue face mask, green jacket and scarf, Navalny boarded with his wife Yulia.
Speaking to reporters on the plane, he said he did not fear being arrested on arrival in Moscow.
"They will arrest me? They will arrest me? That's impossible, I'm an innocent person," Navalny said.
"I feel I am a citizen of Russia who has the full right to return to his home."
Supporters were already gathering to meet Navalny outside Vnukovo airport in Moscow, where his plane was due to land around 7:30 pm (1630 GMT).
There was a heavy police presence at Vnukovo, AFP journalists at the airport said, after authorities warned that mass events would not be allowed because of Covid restrictions.
Barricades were put up inside to block the view of the arrivals area.
"How cowardly, pathetic and funny they are," Navalny wrote on Instagram before leaving Berlin.
- Facing criminal probe -
Several Navalny supporters had arrived at the airport before his flight took off, including key aide Lyubov Sobol.
Navalny fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia in August and was flown out to Berlin in an induced coma.
Western experts concluded he was poisoned with Soviet-designed nerve toxin Novichok and Navalny alleges the attack was carried out on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin denies any involvement and Russian investigators said there were no grounds to launch a probe into the attack.
Berlin said Saturday it had responded to requests for legal assistance from Moscow and handed over transcripts of an interview conducted by German police with Navalny.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Sunday confirmed that Russia received the documents sent by Germany but they "essentially didn't contain anything" on the questions that Moscow had.
Russia's prison service FSIN says Navalny may face jail time on arrival in Moscow for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence he was handed on fraud charges.
The FSIN said it would be "obliged" to detain Navalny once he returned to Russia.
The anti-graft campaigner may also face criminal charges under a probe launched late last year by Russian investigators who say he misappropriated over $4 million worth of donations.
Navalny and his allies said authorities were trying to intimidate him into not returning to Russia and encouraged supporters to gather at the airport.
In response to a Facebook event, more than 2,000 people said they were planning to go, despite temperatures in Moscow hovering around -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Several activists in Russia's second city Saint Petersburg, who were travelling to Moscow to greet Navalny, said police stopped them at the city's train station and airport.
Groups opposed to Navalny were also planning to show up, with a nationalist movement promising to welcome him with "zelyonka", a bright green antiseptic solution that is commonly found in Russia. Navalny had previously been attacked with the green dye that can take days to wash off.
- Anti-corruption investigations -
The airport told journalists that it will not allow media to work inside, citing coronavirus concerns.
Navalny has been the symbol of Russia's protest movement for a decade, after rising to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger and leading anti-government street rallies.
Navalny publishes YouTube investigations into the wealth of Russia's political elites, some of which garner millions of views, making the activist's team a target of lawsuits, police raids and jail stints.
Navalny is ignored or given negative coverage by state-controlled TV, the primary source of news for many Russians, which makes it unclear how much support he enjoys among ordinary citizens.
According to a poll published by the independent Levada Centre last year, only 20 percent of respondents said they approved of Navalny's actions, while 50 percent disapproved.
Navalny has never held elected office. He came second in a 2013 vote for mayor of Moscow but was barred from standing against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections.
His allies are also frequently prevented from running for election.
In 2019, several Navalny allies were barred from running for the Moscow city council, sparking mass rallies in the capital that lasted several weeks.