Kremlin critic faces criminal probe after being yanked off flight

A prominent Kremlin critic was facing possible jail time Tuesday after Russian police stopped his foreign-bound plane as it taxied down a runway and yanked him off the flight.

It marked the latest move in what Kremlin opponents have described as a campaign of arrests and intimidation against President Vladimir Putin’s foes ahead of parliamentary elections in September, and came days after Russia’s ally Belarus diverted a plane and arrested a wanted dissident onboard.

Political activist Andrei Pivovarov was pulled off a Warsaw-bound plane in Saint Petersburg late on Monday.

Pivovarov, the former executive director of Open Russia, a recently disbanded pro-democracy group, said on Twitter the plane was taxiing toward take-off when it turned back and police boarded, ordering him off.

Police searched his Saint Petersburg apartment overnight and a criminal probe was launched against the 39-year-old activist for cooperating with an “undesirable organisation,” Pivovarov’s team said on Facebook.

Pivovarov faces up to six years in prison if convicted.

On Tuesday, he was moved to the southern city of Krasnodar where the criminal probe was launched.

The Krasnodar branch of the Investigative Committee, which probes major cases, said in a statement that Pivovarov had in August 2020 published materials in support of an “undesirable organisation.” 

The statement also accused the activist of attempting to flee from investigators on Monday. Pivovarov said he was going on vacation when he was detained.

Open Russia, founded by self-exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, announced last week it was shutting down to shield its members from prosecution.

– ‘Audacious move’ – 

It was designated an “undesirable” organisation in Russia in 2017 in line with a law targeting foreign-funded groups accused of political meddling.

Amnesty International called Pivovarov’s detention an “audacious move”.

“In spite of its recent self-dissolution to prevent the authorities from targeting its members, the witch-hunt against Open Russia continues,” Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty director in Russia, said in a statement.

“Andrei Pivovarov must be immediately released, all charges against him and others prosecuted under the law of ‘undesirable organisations’ must be dropped, and this discriminatory legislation must be revoked.”

Pivovarov’s removal from the plane came after authorities in Belarus on May 23 diverted an EU airliner to Minsk to arrest a dissident on board, provoking an international outcry.

Polish airline LOT, which operated Pivovarov’s flight, said the plane was taxiing when Russian air traffic control ordered the crew to return to the parking position. 

“The pilot had to comply with this order as he was under Russian jurisdiction,” Polish news agency PAP quoted the company as saying.

Poland said it was looking into the issue.

“This is an unusual action because if the Russians wanted to detain this person they could have done so before boarding. The question is why it was done exactly at that moment,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told state broadcaster TVP.

“The standards of the civilised world do not apply there.”

Police also conducted searches Tuesday morning at the country house outside Moscow of former opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov and the homes of his allies, he said.

“I don’t know what the formal reason (for the searches) is. The real one is clear,” he said on messaging app Telegram. 

Dmitry’s father Gennady Gudkov, who is also a former lawmaker and lives outside Russia, said police searched the homes of several other relatives.

“A beautiful morning in Putin’s Russia,” Gennady Gudkov tweeted. 

Putin’s leading domestic opponent, Alexei Navalny, was sentenced in February to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony on old fraud charges that he says are politically motivated, and authorities are gearing up to outlaw his political network.

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