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Russia Outlaws Navalny Groups Ahead of Elections

Russia designated opposition leader Alexei Navalny's political and anti-corruption movement as extremist, leaving thousands of Navalny's supporters at risk of fines and even imprisonment.

(CN) --- A Moscow court has outlawed imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's organizations, labeling them as extremist. It is a drastic escalation in the Kremlin's campaign to crack down on opponents ahead of September parliamentary elections.

Late Wednesday, the Moscow City Court agreed with Russian prosecutors that alleged Navalny's organizations are hotbeds of dangerous extremists seeking to overthrow the government. The ruling drew international condemnation with the British foreign secretary calling it “perverse” and “Kafka-esque.”

For the past decade, Navalny has built up a wide following through his work exposing corruption at the highest levels of Russian political circles. He is in prison after he was arrested in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been convalescing from a nerve agent poisoning he blames was ordered by the Kremlin. He was thrown into prison for skipping parole hearings while in a Berlin hospital.

The extremist label throws into doubt the candidacy of Navalny allies in the September elections because under a new law anyone associated with an extremist group can be barred from running for public office. Navalny is urging voters to cast their ballots tactically to defeat candidates from United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The ban on Navalny's groups was expected and comes amid a wave of repression against Navalny, his supporters and other figures who pose a threat to Putin.

Three groups founded by Navalny were labeled as extremist, including his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional campaign offices across Russia. Some of his allies, though, vowed to continue their work and run in the upcoming elections.

The extremism designation means people associated with the groups could be prosecuted, even anyone who simply shared material made by the groups, showed up at one of their rallies or donated funds to them, according to news reports. The ruling also makes it illegal to display Navalny symbols.

In addition, Russian-language news outlets must specify when they mention Navalny's groups that they are extremist and they could be prosecuted for sharing information from those organizations, such as their investigations into corruption, according to Meduza, a Latvia-registered news outlet that reports on Russia. Meduza itself is being targeted by Russian authorities, who recently designated it as a “foreign agent,” a classification that Meduza says hurts it financially and hinders its ability to report.

Meduza said Russia's censorship agency, the Roskomnadzor, may require online news outlets to go back and label the Navalny groups as extremist in old articles about their activities and redact reports about Navalny's corruption investigations.

On his Instagram social media page, Navalny said the ruling showed how Russian courts are a “laughingstock.” He said the court kept the evidence secret, the hearing behind closed doors and did not allow him to testify on behalf of the groups.

In typical daring fashion, Navalny also highlighted an investigation his group made into Denis Popov, the head of the Moscow prosecutor's office, accusing him of taking bribes and living lavishly from corruption. Navalny urged his supporters to continue fighting corruption, standing up for justice and seeking political change.

“We will not retreat from our goals and ideas,” Navalny said. “This is our country and we have no other.”

British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab condemned Russia for the move.

“It is another Kafka-esque attack on those standing up against corruption and for open societies, and is a deliberate attempt to effectively outlaw genuine political opposition in Russia,” Raab said in a statement.

Other opposition figures are being steamrolled too ahead of the September elections.

Recently, Open Russia, another anti-Kremlin movement, was dissolved to protect its members from prosecution and the head of the group, Andrei Pivovarov, was pulled off an airplane in St. Petersburg bound for Warsaw and arrested.

Russian authorities designated Open Russia as an “undesirable” organization, which makes it a criminal offense under a 2015 law to be a member.

Open Russia is funded by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin’s rule.

Another Putin critic, Dmitry Gudkov, recently fled to Kiev after he was detained last week. Gudkov, a former member of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said he was warned that if he ran in the September elections a criminal case would be brought against his family.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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