Russian authorities suspend operations of Navalny's offices

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Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol and her lawyer Vladimir Voronin arrive at the court in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 26, 2021. Sobol was detained on Wednesday morning, ahead of a nationwide protest in support of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and charged with violating protest regulations. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW – Russian authorities on Monday ordered the offices of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to halt their activities pending what would be a landmark court ruling on whether they should be outlawed as an extremist group.

The injunction from the Moscow prosecutor's office was another step in a sweeping crackdown on Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic, and his organizations. The prosecutor's office petitioned a court this month to label Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and network of regional offices as extremist groups.

It is a major challenge for Navalny’s embattled team, with its leader in prison and dozens of its members under arrest, targeted for raids by law enforcement, or facing criminal charges. Such a label would outlaw their activities and expose members and supporters to lengthy prison terms, according to human rights advocates.

“Tens of thousands of peaceful activists and the staff of Alexei Navalny’s organizations are in grave danger -– if their organizations are deemed ‘extremist,’ they will be at imminent risk of criminal prosecution,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, in a statement on April 17. She called the possible move "one of the most serious blows for the rights to freedom of expression and association in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”

The prosecutors also asked a Moscow court to restrict the activities of the foundation by banning it from spreading information in the media, taking part in elections, using banks or organizing public events, according to Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer representing the Foundation. The ruling on the motion is expected later on Monday.

The injunction from the prosecutor’s office was posted on social media by Navalny’s allies, who reject the accusations and insist the actions are politically motivated.

“It’s a total travesty of justice and lawlessness once again in Putin’s Russia,” said top Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol.

The prosecutor's office said Monday it resorted to these measures because “leaders and members” of the foundation and Navalny's offices “continue to carry out unlawful activities, for instance, hold unlawful mass public events. ... for example, on April 21” — a reference to a wave of nationwide rallies that day supporting Navalny.