MOSCOW (AP) – Russian authorities on Monday ordered the closure of the offices of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny pending a significant court ruling on whether they should be declared an extremist group.
The order from the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office was another step towards Navalny, the harshest critic of President Vladimir Putin, and his organizations. The prosecutor’s office filed a lawsuit this month with the Navalny Anti-Corruption Fund labeling its network of regional offices as extremist.
This is a serious challenge for Navalny’s combat team, whose leader is in prison; dozens of its members have been arrested, targeted for law enforcement raids or prosecuted. According to human rights defenders, such a label would make their activities illegal and “put members and supporters in prison for a long time.”
“Tens of thousands of peace activists և employees of Alexei Navalny’s organizations are in serious danger. “If their organizations are considered ‘extremist’, they run the immediate risk of prosecution,” said Natalia via Viagina, director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, in an April 17 statement. He called the possible move “one of the most serious blows to the right to freedom of expression and association in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”
Prosecutors have also asked a Moscow court to restrict the foundation’s activities by banning it from disseminating information in the media, running in elections, using banks or organizing public events, according to Ivan Pavlov, the foundation’s lawyer. The decision on the mediation is expected later on Monday.
The prosecutor’s office’s petition was posted on social media by Navalny’s allies, who deny the allegations, claiming the actions were politically motivated.
“This is once again a complete mess of Putin’s justice and lawlessness in Russia,” said Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s senior colleague.
The prosecutor’s office said on Monday it had resorted to the measures as “heads and members” of the fund և Navalny’s offices “continue to carry out illegal activities, such as holding mass public events.” “For example, on April 21,” he said, referring to a wave of rallies in support of Navalny that day.
“They are just shouting here. We are afraid of your activities, we are afraid of your complaints, we are afraid of your smart voting, “Ivan hd Danov, Navalny’s main ally and director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote on Twitter.
The “Smart Voting” project is designed to support candidates who are likely to win various local elections by the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. The program was successful in some regional elections last year.
The Navalny Foundation opened 10 years ago, after which it targeted high-ranking Russian officials who were exposed to corruption, many in the form of colorful, widely viewed YouTube videos. One of the latest publications, which received 116 million views, claims that a luxurious palace was built for Putin on the Black Sea coast through a complex scheme of corruption. The Kremlin has denied any links to Putin.
During his tenure, Navalny set up a vast network of regional offices in dozens of regions of Russia as he campaigned against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. He was eventually barred from running, but kept the infrastructure in place.
Soon, these regional “headquarters” began investigating vaccinations by local officials, activists recruited, some of whom would later run for office. Regional offices also played a role in organizing nationwide rallies in support of Navalny this year.
Navalny was arrested on his return from Germany in January after recovering for five months after being poisoned by a nerve agent he blamed on the Kremlin, a charge denied by Russian officials.
The arrests sparked protests across Russia that proved to be the biggest show of contempt in recent years. However, they did not prevent the authorities from prosecuting Navalny in court for violating the terms of the suspended sentence, which stems from the 2014 From a conviction for embezzlement, which was widely considered to be politically motivated. He was sentenced to two years in prison and last month transferred to a penitentiary known for its harsh conditions.
Another wave of pro-Navalny protests erupted in all cities across the country on Wednesday. Unlike the past, the police did not intervene in demonstrations in many cities. But Navalny’s aides were arrested in many districts before and after the protests. Several other opposition activists were arrested over the weekend.
Sobol, who was detained in Moscow hours before the start of the protest, was fined $ 4,000 for repeatedly violating the rules of protest.
In light of Monday’s order, Navalny’s offices posted announcements on social media saying they were shutting down. “It is foolish to be involved in a war that cannot be won,” wrote Sergei Boyko, the head of Navalny’s office in Novosibirsk, Siberia, on Facebook.
Navalny’s chief strategist, Leonid Volkov, head of the regional network, told the media that all the offices had closed.
In the past, both the foundation and regional offices have been regularly targeted with attacks, fines and arrests of activists. But the extremist trial is taking the pressure to a new level, Sobol told the Associated Press on Friday.
“Labeling us as extremists, contrary to common sense, the laws of this country, as we are obviously not involved in any extremism, is a serious attack on our organization. “We will have to survive in completely different conditions,” Sobol said. “But I am convinced that our work will not stop.”
The case against the Navalny Foundation քային regional offices will be heard in camera by the Moscow City Court. It remains unclear what evidence the authorities have against the organizations, as some of the materials in the case, according to Navalny’s allies, contain state secrets.
Navalny’s team said they had prepared a motion to allow him to take part in the proceedings. “It is absurd to carry out these lawsuits without the society. But without banning Navalny, the work of Navalny’s headquarters is even more absurd. “And not only is it absurd, it’s illegal,” the team said in a statement on Navalny’s blog, promising to file a petition “soon.”
Associated Press journalist Kostya Manenkov has invested in Moscow.