(AP) — A Moscow court declared the organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
to be extremists on Wednesday night, the latest step in a campaign to silence dissent and prevent Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September.
The ruling by the Moscow City Court, which takes effect immediately, bars people
associated with Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption
and his vast regional network from running for public office. Many of Navalny's allies had hoped to run for parliamentary seats in the September 19 election.
The ruling, which is part of a multi-pronged Kremlin strategy to crush the opposition, sends a strong message just one week before President Vladimir Putin
meets with US Vice President Joe Biden
The label of extremism
also carries lengthy prison
sentences for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who has donated to them, and even those who have simply shared the groups' materials.
Navalny, Putin's most ardent political foe, was arrested in January after returning from Germany
, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation Russian officials deny. In February, Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed.
Navalny called the hearing a travesty of justice and vowed to continue defying the Kremlin in a statement posted on his Instagram
account following the verdict.
“When corruption is the foundation of the government, fighters against corruption are labeled as extremists,” the statement said, adding, “We will not abandon our goals and ideas; it is our country, and we do not have another.”
The United States
State Department slammed the court's decision, claiming that "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 for common purposes, exercise religious freedom, and have their voices heard through free and fair elections
,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a statement.
The court session, which lasted more than 12 hours, was held behind closed doors due to the discussion of classified materials, and the judge
denied a defense request to allow Navalny to participate via video link from prison, as well as other defense motions.
During the hearing, lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov stated that the prosecutors’ motion was intended to prevent Navalny’s associates from running for public office. “This case is linked to the law that prohibits all those who are connected with the Foundation for Fighting Corruption from getting elected,” Smirnov said.
The ruling will be appealed, according to lawyers.
Navalny's offices in dozens of Russian regions were already closed in April
after prosecutors issued an injunction ordering them to cease operations pending the court's decision, but the opposition leader's associates have vowed to continue their work in other formats.
His foundation, which was founded ten years ago, has relentlessly targeted senior government officials with colorful and widely watched videos detailing corruption allegations against them. One of its most recent productions, which has received 117 million views on YouTube
, claimed that a lavish palace on the Black Sea shores was built for Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied this.
Navalny has also used his offices across Russia to organize anti-Kremlin protests and implement his Smart Voting
strategy — a project that aims to support candidates who are most likely to defeat those from the Kremlin's dominant United Russia party in various elections.
Prosecutors accused Navalny's organizations of staging protests to overthrow the government during the hearing.
As the Moscow court prepared to hear the case, Russian lawmakers rushed through legislation prohibiting members of extremist organizations from running for public office. The legislation, signed by Putin last week, will doom the hopes of several Navalny associates who have declared their intent to run for parliament.
Ivan Zhdanov, a top Navalny associate who heads his foundation, has pledged that the team will continue to publish exposes of corrupt officials and implement the Smart Voting strategy.
“Navalny’s team will not cease operations; they should not hope for it,” Zhdanov, who lives in the United States, told the independent Dozhd TV.
The September election is widely regarded as an important part of Putin's efforts to solidify 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 could allow him to retain power until 2036.
Authorities arrested Andrei Pivovarov, the head of another anti-Kremlin group labeled "undesirable" — a designation used by the Kremlin to outlaw more than 30 groups — last week, ahead of the election.
Pivovarov announced the dissolution of his Open Russia movement just days before his arrest to protect members from prosecution, but that didn't stop authorities from pulling him off a Warsaw-bound plane at St. Petersburg's airport last week, and a court in southern Russia's Krasnodar region ordered him held for two months pending an investigation
Under a 2015 law, membership in “undesirable” organizations is a criminal offense, and another bill now making its way through the Russian parliament increases the punishment, introducing prison terms of up to six years for their members.
Open Russia was funded by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who relocated to London
after spending ten years in prison in Russia on charges widely perceived as political retaliation for challenging Putin's rule. Khodorkovsky has described the ongoing crackdown on dissent as a reflection of authorities' concern about the waning popularity of the main Kremlin-directed party, United Russia.
Another opposition activist, Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker who has aspired to run for parliament again, was detained for two days last week on financial charges that he and his supporters claim are fabricated, and he fled the country after being released, claiming that he had been threatened with imprisonment if he did not leave the country.