Russia has outlawed organisations founded by jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny by judging them “extremist”, a label that bans his supporters from running in elections and threatens them with years in prison.
A Moscow court ruled on Wednesday that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his nationwide network of political activists should be classified alongside Isis and al-Qaeda, a move that rights groups said was 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 the following month 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 lasted more than 12 hours and 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 came a few days after Putin signed into force a law making 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 faces 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 crucial 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 incumbents from the ruling United Russia party.
The US state department condemned the court’s designation, saying it would further restrict the ability of opposition candidates to appear on the ballot in September.
“With this action, Russia has effectively criminalised one of the country’s few remaining independent political movements,” said Ned Price, state department spokesperson. “While the scale of today’s action is particularly disturbing, it is indicative of the Russian government’s widening crackdown on political opposition, civil society, and independent media.”
The state department called for the immediate release of Navalny, and urged Russia to end repression of his supporters.
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, as well as any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.