RUSSIAN INVESTIGATORS HAVE launched a new “extremism” probe against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and his top allies that could see the opposition leader spend up to 10 more years in jail.
Navalny’s groups were already banned as “extremist” earlier this year. The fresh probe comes after President Vladimir Putin’s party this month shored up another five years in control of the lower house of parliament.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes in Russia, said in a statement that by 2014 Navalny had “created an extremist network and directed it” with the aim of “changing the foundations of the constitutional system in the Russian Federation”.
Navalny, 45, and his top aide Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov are suspected of having run an “extremist network”, while Lyubov Sobol and a number of his other allies are accused of taking part.
Investigators accused them of setting up a number of social media accounts and the website of Navalny’s banned Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) “in order to promote criminal activity.”
“The illegal activities of the extremist network were aimed at discrediting state authorities and their policies,” investigators said.
The activities were also aimed at “destabilising the situation in the regions”, they added, and “shaping public opinion about the need for a violent change of power”.
Investigators also said calls for “extremist and terrorist activities” were common at regular street protests organised by Navalny and his allies.
Zhdanov, who headed the FBK before it disbanded, described the retroactive case covering “all of our past activities” as “complete insanity” and “lawlessness” in a post on Instagram.
Putin’s ‘greatest enemy’
If convicted, Navalny, Volkov and Zhdanov could face six to 10 years in prison, while Sobol and the other activists risk two to six years behind bars.
“This is the answer to the question of who Putin fears and who he considers his greatest enemy,” Sobol tweeted.
“Freedom for Navalny and Russia!”
Navalny, Putin’s most vocal domestic critic, was detained in January after returning to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from a poisoning attack he blames on the Kremlin.
He was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony the following month and saw his nationwide network of political offices and FBK declared “extremist” and banned in June.
In recent months, the opposition leader and his allies have become targets of numerous probes that they and their supporters describe as the Kremlin’s revenge for challenging Putin’s two-decade-long rule.
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Most of his top allies, including Volkov and Zhdanov, have fled the country.
The latest probe comes after Putin’s deeply unpopular ruling United Russia party won a sweeping majority in the lower house State Duma earlier this month.
Anyone associated with Navalny’s banned groups was kept from running in the elections, while his allies called for opposition supporters to back other candidates who could potentially defeat United Russia.
Russia’s opposition accused the authorities of mass voter fraud in the election and in a message from prison last week Navalny said the polls had been “stolen”.
He also called on his supporters to keep up the fight.
“We have one country no matter where we live,” he wrote on his Instagram account, which is being run by his team.
“The fight for it is not a sprint but a long and hard marathon.”