A court in Moscow was considering Wednesday whether to brand jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s prominent anti-corruption organisation extremist, a ruling that would ban its activities and could see staff members jailed.
Prosecutors in April requested that Navalny’s network of regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) be hit with the label, saying the group was plotting an uprising with support from the West.
Lawyers representing the anti-graft group in the closed-door hearing earlier said they expected a decision by Wednesday.
But as the session stretched into the evening that looked less likely, in a hearing that saw the judge dismiss several key requests from Navalny’s allies.
Among them, FBK lawyers had asked for the proceedings to be made public, and also that Navalny — detained in a penal colony outside Moscow — be called as a witness.
Ilya Novikov, a lawyer for the anti-corruption group, said that while it was unclear when a decision would come, he was “under no illusions” as to what it would be.
The FBK routinely publishes investigations into alleged corruption by officials at all levels of government.
Its most notable probes, which have millions of views on YouTube, showed sprawling luxury properties allegedly belonging to President Vladimir Putin and former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The allegations spurred massive street demonstrations that were met with swift and brutal police crackdowns condemned by leaders of Western countries.
– Elections looming –
Navalny’s network of regional offices helped organise his smart voting strategy that urges voters to cast ballots for the candidate most likely to defeat Kremlin-linked opponents.
Ahead of parliamentary elections in September — in which the deeply unpopular ruling United Russia party is expected to struggle — lawmakers passed legislation that bans members and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in the polls.
The bill, which was signed into law by Putin earlier in June, is expected to be used against allies of Navalny in the upcoming vote.
The law affects not only senior members and activists of Navalny’s team but potentially tens of thousands of Russians who supported its work through donations.
Leaders of such groups will not be able to run in parliamentary elections for five years, while members and those who helped finance their work will be banned from running for three years.
Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken critic at home, survived a near-fatal nerve agent attack last summer that he blames on the Kremlin.
After returning to Russia in January following months of treatment in Germany, he was imprisoned for two-and-a-half-years on old embezzlement charges in February.
Russian authorities had for years tolerated opposition groups including Navalny’s political movement but Kremlin critics say authorities are now moving to remove vestiges of dissent as fatigue is growing with Putin’s two-decade rule.
US President Joe Biden has said in advance of a summit with the Russian leader in Geneva next week that he will press Putin on the Kremlin’s human rights record.