The anti-corruption organization and regional campaign offices run by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny have been declared “extremist”, a Russian court ruled on Wednesday night.
The Moscow City Court’s action is part of a sweeping crackdown on Navalny, the Kremlin’s fiercest critic, and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption.
Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov accused prosecutors of pushing this case, strictly to bar the group’s candidates for running in the Sept. 13 parliamentary elections.
“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 told the court.
The court case was heard behind closed doors, with no media access, because authorities said it contained classified information.
FBK has already been designated as “foreign agent” by the Russian justice ministry in 2019, requiring it to submit regular reports on the sources of funding and its objectives.
As it was widely anticipated that FBK would be labelled “extremist,” Leonid Volkov, chief of staff of Navalny’s team, announced in April the closure of Navalny’s regional campaign offices, saying their activity is now “impossible,” as it endangers staff, after he said their network of offices became “a personal enemy to [President] Vladimir Putin.”
He added that there will not be any “rebranding” of the campaign offices to evade the “extremism” ruling.
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The court decision comes just months ahead of Russia’s September Parliamentary election. Although neither Navalny himself nor his allies have been allowed to run for any political office in Russia, his “smart voting” strategy, supporting politicians outside of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, has proven effective at beating some ruling party candidates.
Labelling Navalny’s regional campaign groups, which have been instrumental for the “smart voting” strategy, “extremist” would thwart such activity in the future.
Navalny, 44, was jailed in February for two and a half years on charges he has called politically motivated. He was arrested upon returning to Moscow in January after undergoing treatment in Germany for a poisoning with nerve agent Novichok that he blames on the Kremlin. The Russian government has denied any involvement.
The opposition leader has complained about pain in his back and leg while in custody, saying he is not getting adequate medical help — something Russian authorities deny.
In March, he went on a hunger strike in protest, but ended it more than three weeks later after his health significantly deteriorated. Tens of thousands of people gathered across Russia to protest Navalny’s treatment in custody in April.
Navalny’s detention and in-jail treatment have caused an international outcry, including from the United States, adding to already severe strains in Russia’s ties with the West.
David K. Li and The Associated Press contributed.