A Russian court on June 9 approved a request by prosecutors to declare organizations linked to imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny as "extremist," the latest move in a campaign by authorities to bar the Kremlin critic’s allies from running in parliamentary elections in September.
The Moscow City Court’s ruling came into force immediately, thus preventing people associated with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his network of regional offices across Russia from seeking public office.
The ruling also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations.
Russian authorities have ramped up their pressure on dissent ahead of the elections in September with opinion polls showing support for the ruling United Russia party at the lowest levels ever.
Navalny, the most vocal political foe of President Vladimir Putin, 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.
Navalny was sentenced in February to a 2 1/2 year prison term for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he rejected as politically motivated.
Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov said during the hearing that stretched into the evening hours 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 FBK from getting elected,” Smirnov said.
The court session was held behind closed doors on the grounds that classified materials would be discussed.
Navalny’s foundation has relentlessly targeted senior government officials over the past decade with widely watched videos that expose corruption allegations against them.
Navalny’s regional headquarters have been instrumental in implementing a Smart Voting strategy — a project designed to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those from United Russia in various elections.
Dozens of Navalny’s offices in Russian regions already shut down in April after the prosecutors issued an injunction to suspend their activities pending the court’s ruling.
As the Moscow court was considering the case, Russian lawmakers pushed a new law that banned members of organizations declared extremist from running for public office.
The law endorsed by Putin on June 4 — Navalny’s 45th birthday — bars leaders and founders of organizations declared extremist or terrorist by Russian courts from running for elective posts for a period of five years.
Other members or employees of such organizations will face a three-year ban.
Navalny’s FBK has already been declared a “foreign agent,” a punitive designation under a separate law.
The law appears to be retroactively applicable since it only involves restricting a person’s rights, legal analysts say.