Russia has outlawed organisations founded by jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny by ruling them “extremist”, a label that bans his supporters from running in elections and threatens them with years in prison.
A Moscow court on Wednesday said that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his nationwide network of political activists should be classified alongside Isis and al-Qaeda, in a move that rights groups say is part of a Kremlin campaign to silence opposition to President Vladimir Putin ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, was detained in January and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after he returned to Russia having recovered from a nerve agent poisoning that he has claimed was an assassination attempt ordered by the Kremlin.
“FBK and Navalny’s headquarters are recognised as extremist organisations,” lawyers for the groups stated. “As a result, their activities are prohibited on the territory of Russia, and all employees who continue to work for them are threatened with real jail time.”
According to partial transcripts provided by FBK lawyers, Russian prosecutors argued that Navalny’s groups, through their activism and organisation of protests against both Navalny’s incarceration and Putin, “created conditions for destabilising the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans . . . taking people to the streets in order to forcibly change the government”.
Prosecutors also said that FBK payments, made to help protesters detained by police with legal fees, should be classed as “financing of extremist activities”, suggesting that those who received the funds may be targeted with prosecution.
The court session lasting more than 12 hours was held in private after it was ruled that some of the materials being discussed were secret. FBK’s legal team said it would appeal against the ruling.
It comes a few days after Putin signed into force a law that makes it illegal for members or supporters of “extremist” organisations to participate in Russian elections. Anyone who has been a member, donated to or shared materials created by such organisations is open to criminal prosecution and up to six years in prison under Russian law.
Navalny’s regional network, which has offices in dozens of Russian provincial cities, legally closed down in April pending the court’s decision. Senior associates have said they will continue their activism individually, regardless of Wednesday’s ruling.
The network is a key part of Navalny’s efforts for September’s elections to use so-called smart voting — an initiative that directs disgruntled voters to support candidates most likely to unseat incumbent politicians from the ruling United Russia party.
FBK, founded by Navalny a decade ago, has published a number of investigations into alleged financial corruption by senior Russian government officials.
In January, after Navalny’s detention, it released an investigation into what it said was a $1.4bn palace on the Black Sea constructed for Putin by a clique of oligarchs, which has since been viewed 117m times on YouTube.
The Kremlin has denied any links between Putin or his family and the palace and has denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.