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Russian court outlaws opposition leader Navalny's groups

by Val Pearon | June 10, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. A Moscow court is considering a request by prosecutors to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. That's part of authorities’ efforts to muzzle critics ahead of a crucial parliamentary election in September. The Moscow City Court on Wednesday, June 9, 2021 is expected to grant prosecutors’ request to designate Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices across Russia as extremist organizations. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

MOSCOW (AP) -- A Moscow court on Wednesday night outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September.

The Moscow City Court's ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. Many of Navalny's allies had hoped to run for parliamentary seats in the Sept. 19 election.

The ruling, part of a multipronged Kremlin strategy to steamroll the opposition, sends a tough message one week before President Vladimir Putin holds a summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva.

The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials.

Navalny, Putin's most ardent political foe, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin -- an accusation that Russian officials reject. In February, Navalny was given a 2½-year prison term for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.

In a statement posted on his Instagram account after the verdict, Navalny denounced the hearing as a travesty of justice and vowed to continue defying the Kremlin.

"When corruption is the foundation of the government, fighters against corruption are cast as extremists," the statement said. "We will not abandon our goals and ideas. It's our country and we don't have another one."

The U.S. State Department condemned the court's ruling, saying "Russia has effectively criminalized one of the country's few remaining independent political movements."

"The Russian people, like all people, have the right to speak freely, form peaceful associations to common ends, exercise religious freedom, and have their voices heard through free and fair elections," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

The court session, lasting more than 12 hours, was held behind closed doors on grounds that classified materials would be discussed. The judge rejected a defense appeal to allow Navalny to take part via a video link from prison and dismissed other motions by the defense.

Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov said during the hearing that the prosecutors' motion was intended to bar Navalny's associates from running for public office.

"This case has been linked to the law that bans all those who are connected with the Foundation for Fighting Corruption from getting elected," Smirnov said.

Lawyers said they would appeal the ruling.

Navalny's offices in dozens of Russian regions already shut down in April after prosecutors issued an injunction to suspend their activities pending the court ruling, but the opposition leader's associates have vowed to continue their work in different formats.

His foundation, started 10 years ago, has relentlessly targeted senior government officials with colorful and widely watched videos that detail corruption allegations against them. One of its latest productions, which has received 117 million views on YouTube, claimed a lavish palace on the shores of the Black Sea was built for Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied any links to Putin.

Navalny also has relied on his offices across Russia to organize anti-Kremlin protests and implement his Smart Voting strategy -- a project to support the candidates most likely to defeat those from the Kremlin's dominant United Russia party in various elections.

During the hearing, prosecutors accused Navalny's organizations of staging protests to overthrow the government.

As the Moscow court was preparing to consider the case, Russian lawmakers fast-tracked a measure that banned members of organizations declared extremist from running for public office. The law was signed by Putin last week, and combined with the court ruling will dash the hopes of several Navalny associates who have declared their intention to run for parliament.

Ivan Zhdanov, a top Navalny associate who headed his foundation, vowed that the team will continue publishing exposes of corrupt officials and apply the Smart Voting strategy.

"Navalny's team will not stop its activities, they shouldn't hope for that," Zhdanov, who lives abroad, told the independent Dozhd TV.

The September vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin's efforts to cement his rule ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The 68-year-old leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

Ahead of the vote, the government has targeted other opposition figures as well. Last week, authorities arrested Andrei Pivovarov, the head of another anti-Kremlin group that they have labeled "undesirable" -- a designation used by the Kremlin to outlaw more than 30 groups.

Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, walks to attend a court session after speaking to the media at Moscow Court, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, walks to attend a court session after speaking to the media at Moscow Court, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, gestures while speaking to the media as other lawyers stand around him during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, gestures while speaking to the media as other lawyers stand around him during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov speaks to the media during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov speaks to the media during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Vladimir Voronin carries documents after a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Vladimir Voronin carries documents after a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ilya Novikov speaks to the media at Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ilya Novikov speaks to the media at Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, speaks to the media as other lawyers stand around him during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, speaks to the media as other lawyers stand around him during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A court is expected to outlaw the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Prosecutors have asked the Moscow City Court to designate Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices as extremist organizations. The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups' materials. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman and the head of the United Russia party, Dmitry Medvedev, left, speaks during a joint session of the Supreme Council and the General Council of United Russia party in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Chairman of the Supreme Council of United Russia Boris Gryzlov is on the right. (Svetlana Schenkel/Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)
Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman and the head of the United Russia party, Dmitry Medvedev, left, speaks during a joint session of the Supreme Council and the General Council of United Russia party in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Chairman of the Supreme Council of United Russia Boris Gryzlov is on the right. (Svetlana Schenkel/Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)
Russian lawyers Ivan Pavlov, left, and Yevgeny Smirnov walk to attend a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A Moscow court has outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September. The Moscow City Court's ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyers Ivan Pavlov, left, and Yevgeny Smirnov walk to attend a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A Moscow court has outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September. The Moscow City Court's ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyers Ivan Pavlov, right, Vladimir Voronin, center, and Yevgeny Smirnov smile during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A Moscow court has outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September. The Moscow City Court's ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian lawyers Ivan Pavlov, right, Vladimir Voronin, center, and Yevgeny Smirnov smile during a break in a court session in front of Moscow Court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. A Moscow court has outlawed the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September. The Moscow City Court's ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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