MOSCOW -- Russian authorities have fined the country's only independent electoral watchdog for violating the law just two days before national parliamentary elections.
Golos, a Western-financed election-monitoring organization that had already exposed nearly 5,000 allegations of violations by parties campaigning in the State Duma elections slated for December 4, was found guilty of a breach of election protocol in a rapid-fire court case on December 2.
Golos was fined 30,000 rubles ($1,000), a symbolic penalty that activists say is aimed at intimidating its employees and other election observers.
Hours after the court-imposed fine, the group said its director, Lilya Shibanova, was detained for 12 hours at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after refusing to surrender her laptop to security officers.
Golos employees told local media they would continue their monitoring of this weekend's vote, having feared that the case was aimed at pushing them into closure.
"Of course we are very worried by the behavior of the administration representatives, which have declared a real war on one independent but proud organization which is not afraid to tell the truth," Golos Deputy Executive Director Grigory Melkonyants told reporters in Moscow hours before voting began in Russia's Far East. "We see that this open and active fight has been going on for the whole week already and no doubts all this has the only goal - not to allow association Golos to conduct an independent election monitoring tomorrow, December 4."
Prosecutors said the offense stemmed from Golos's online "map of violations" where people can post reports from across the country, which they claim violates a Russian law against publishing electoral data in the five days preceding an election.
The White House raised concerns over the court ruling and cited what it said was an apparent "pattern of harassment."
The watchdog first came under a pressure on November 30, when the Golos-produced interactive map was removed from the website of online newspaper gazeta.ru, prompting the resignation of one of its editors.
The editor said the map, which is still accessible elsewhere
, was removed by the site's owners, who were displeased with the election coverage he had overseen.
Subsequently acting on an alleged tip-off from three State Duma deputies, prosecutors visited Golos's Moscow office on December 1, notifying them that they had violated election legislation and saying they had filed a case against the group with the Moscow District Court.
Lawyers for the Golos group said they had 30 minutes to prepare their case and asked for it to be postponed, but their appeal was overruled by the court.
"We all feel threatened at the moment, we and our correspondents," Melkonyants said on the day of the court decision. "And when this whole tension started and we saw that three Duma deputies had issued an appeal to the general prosecutor for an inquiry into Golos -- not an inquiry actually, but the closure of Golos is what was written -- and this has now impacted the joint project with gazeta.ru and the link from their page."
Putin Points The Finger
The court case against Golos was opened just days after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at the ruling United Russia party's congress on November 27, accused unspecified Western-financed groups of fomenting instability ahead of the elections.
Golos openly admits it is funded by grants from nonprofit groups in the United States and Great Britain, saying this helps it maintain independence.
"We are the only organization which is independent of the [Russian] government at the moment, in this arena," Melkonyants said. "It's a fact that the political parties are all controllable, and if tomorrow they are told to sign something against Golos they will sign it. They understand that Golos is doing useful work."
Interfax reported that Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission, accused Golos of "trying to assume the power of the authorities" in a written letter to the Moscow District Court on December 2.
"The information [they have] disseminated is clearly dominated by negative statements about one party -- the United Russia party -- and this could give the electorate a negative impression of the party," Churov wrote.
Fast And Furious
Rights activists say a campaign is already under way to discredit Golos's activities and reinforce Putin's notion that Western-backed groups are trying to disrupt the elections.
Late on December 2, the NTV television station, which is owned by the state natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, aired a report
on Golos's foreign funding and its alleged "purely political goals."
Ahead of the show, Melkonyants said he expected the group to be presented in the worst possible light.
"We understood it was ordered, [that there was] an order to discredit [Golos], to put out a negative report," Melkonyants said. "I won't be surprised if we are presented as the most evil force in the world."
Meanwhile, accusations of censorship have ballooned as support for the ruling United Russia party has dwindled in recent months.
On November 28, the blogging platform LiveJournal, sometimes touted as Russia's only forum for free political debate, sustained a powerful denial-of-service attack.
The state-owned RIA Novosti agency was also embroiled in a censorship scandal after one of its employees resigned after he said he was told not to prominently display articles critical of Putin or United Russia. RIA Novosti denied his claims and said the employee "distorted" the instructions he received.
with additional Reuters reporting