State prosecutors in Moscow have ordered campaign groups supporting Alexey Navalny to stop their activities, pending a request to outlaw them and the jailed Kremlin critic’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
The move on Monday came as a court in the Russian capital met for a preliminary hearing to consider a prosecutor’s request to label Navalny’s foundation and its regional offshoots as “extremist”.
The prosecutor has accused pro-Navalny groups of plotting to destabilise the political situation in Russia and working to promote a popular revolution.
At the hearing, prosecutors asked the court to prohibit the opposition politician’s groups from publishing anything online, organising protests, and taking part in elections, Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally said.
The hearings are being held behind closed doors as authorities have classified some of the case details, said lawyer Ivan Pavlov, whose legal team is handling the case.
“We all understand perfectly that there is no extremism in [our] work … The extremism allegation is being used purely as a pretext for political repression,” Volkov said.
Navalny’s regional campaign offices, which he began opening in 2017 as he announced a bid for the presidency before he was barred from standing election, said they would stop posting anything on social media and were suspending operations in the wake of Monday’s ruling.
“Unfortunately, we can no longer work in the old format. It’s not safe for staff and our supporters,” said his group in St Petersburg. Similar messages were posted by several others.
But Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, said Navalny’s allies had also already pledged to “reappear under different names” if blacklisted by authorities.
“We do know that Navalny’s supporters’ Telegram channel stopped operations today, as did other … Navalny-linked websites, but they say they will come back,” Smith said. “It is essentially a cat-and-mouse game.”
Germany voices objection
Designating Navalny’s regional groups as “extremist” would essentially outlaw their activity and expose members and donors to prison sentences.
Such a ruling would also give Russian authorities the legal power to block activists’ bank accounts.
There are currently 33 organisations on Russia’s extremism list, including ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Moscow City Court is expected to rule in a few days on the prosecutor’s request.
The case threatens to become another flashpoint in Moscow’s souring relations with the West, which have been aggravated by the Kremlin’s handling of Navalny as well as economic sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and a recent Russian military buildup near Ukraine.
Germany condemned Monday’s suspension order, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert saying that “using the instruments of fighting terror against politically undesirable opinions is in no way compatible with the principles of the rule of law”.
Navalny ends hunger strike
The court order followed pro-Navalny demonstrations last week which saw thousands of his supporters take to the streets in cities spread across all of Russia’s 11 time zones.
The rallies came amid concerns for the 44-year-old’s health, after alleged mistreatment by prison authorities.
Navalny accused them of refusing him proper medical treatment after suffering acute back and leg pain, which prompted him to begin a weeks-long hunger strike protest.
According to a monitoring group, nearly 1,800 protesters were arrested in connection with Wednesday’s protests, which the Kremlin had denounced as illegal.
Navalny ended his hunger strike on Friday after reportedly receiving medical care from civilian doctors.
Announcing the move in an Instagram post via his lawyers, Navalny said he was still demanding to be seen by a doctor of his own choosing, the original trigger for his hunger strike, and that he was losing sensation in parts of his legs and arms.
Navalny was moved earlier this month from a penal colony in Vladimir, a city 180km (110 miles) east of Moscow, to the hospital ward of another prison in the area.
He was initially jailed in February for two and a half years over alleged parole violations of a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has rejected as fabricated.
His sentencing came after his arrest in January as he arrived in Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – an accusation Moscow has routinely rejected as false.