The mayor of Yaroslavl, a liberal politician whose election last year was a major victory for the anti-Kremlin protest movement, was detained Wednesday on bribery charges in the latest blow to the opposition.
Yevgeny Urlashov, who was elected in April 2012 after a heated campaign in polls monitored by scores of volunteers from Moscow, was detained in the early hours of Wednesday and accused of extorting a 14-million-ruble ($420,000) bribe from a businessman.
The Investigative Committee said in a statement that Urlashov and four of his subordinates were under investigation on the charge, which could lead to a prison term.
According to footage broadcast on national television, during the arrest police officers carefully laid out packs of banknotes allegedly found in the apartment of Urlashov's neighbour, where he was said to have hidden them.
Masked men also raided the city hall of Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000 some 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of Moscow, forcing several employees down on the floor.
Looking dazed and surrounded by the masked officers, Urlashov said the arrest was an attempt by corrupt businessmen to oust him.
"I have said that I would fight it, and I am fighting it," he said, "and they are trying to remove me from the post."
Urlashov made headlines when he quit the ruling United Russia party and ran against its candidate in the closely watched 2012 mayoral polls as an independent, winning with a comfortable margin.
The arrest, which follows similar detentions of independent mayors in recent years, is the latest blow to Russia's opposition movement.
Alexei Navalny, arguably the most charismatic leader of the protest movement who himself is standing trial and campaigning for the post of Moscow mayor, slammed Urlashov's arrest.
"Some citizens elect their mayors in competitive elections... then various crooks from United Russia come and fabricate criminal cases against the mayors," wrote Navalny, urging Yaroslavl residents to rally.
Billionaire politician Mikhail Prokhorov called the arrest a "demonstrative seizing of a popularly elected city leader" and a "blow to every Russian's civic rights and freedoms".
Mayors have for years remained the only officials still popularly elected in Russia besides the president.
Urlashov's detention echoes the arrest in 2011 of another mayor who won against a United Russia candidate, Alexander Serov of the Siberian city Bratsk.
He was removed from his locked apartment by masked officers with the help of a saw, and accused of receiving a multimillion ruble bribe from a businessman.
Serov, who denies the charges, lost his post, but there has not been a trial to this day.