Move by prosecutor comes ahead of expected ruling to outlaw opposition movement as ‘extremist’
Russia’s prosecutor has suspended the activities of Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organisation ahead of a court ruling that is expected to outlaw the opposition movement as “extremist” and threaten supporters with long jail terms.
In a decision published on Monday, the prosecutor banned his regional headquarters from holding opposition rallies or engaging in elections activity pending a landmark court decision that could cripple the democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin.
The designation is part of a sweeping crackdown on Navalny’s activities, from sentencing the Kremlin critic to a two-and-a-half-year prison term to dozens of arrests of his top aides and regional staff.
“They’re just yelling here: we’re afraid of your activity, we’re afraid of your protests, we’re afraid of smart voting,” wrote Ivan Zhdanov, the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, uploading a copy of the prosecutor’s decision. Smart voting refers to efforts to direct opposition against Putin and the ruling United Russia party’s strongest competitors.
Court proceedings are expected to begin on Monday in the extremism case, a designation mostly reserved for terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida or religious organisations such as the non-violent Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been targeted with mass arrests since being outlawed in 2017.
In a statement this month, the Moscow prosecutor accused Navalny’s organisation of “creating conditions for changing the foundations of the constitutional order, including through the scenario of a ‘coloured revolution’”.
The decision could affect thousands of staff, supporters and donors who have given support via crowdfunding efforts. The evidence in the case has been kept hidden because it contains state secrets, the government has said.
Police have already begun rolling up Navalny’s organisation nationwide, arresting more than 70 staff and supporters at the weekend following a nationwide protest calling for his freedom. Navalny recently ended a 24-day hunger strike to demand better medical care.
The Kremlin critic was arrested in January after returning from Germany, where he had treatment for novichok poisoning that he and the online investigative collective Bellingcat had traced back to Russia’s FSB.
On Monday Navalny’s allies said they would halt their public activities in order to protect their employees from fines and arrests. Membership of extremist organisations is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Several regional headquarters have started posting messages on their social networks saying they will stop updating them. “Unfortunately we can no longer work in the current format. It is not safe for our staff and supporters. From today, no information will appear on this page. It will be frozen,” a message on the Moscow headquarters’ Telegram channel read.
In a recent interview, the Navalny ally Leonid Volkov said that the organisation’s expansion into Russia’s regions was “one of the most painful and irritating [situations] for Putin”.
“If we leave it the way it is, then certainly they’re going to initiate a mass criminal case against all the staff of the regional headquarters,” he said of the organisation.