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Thursday 8 August 2019

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Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Four employees are incarcerated, and several under investigation. One is nearing a month on hunger strike, subsisting on water and vitamins as she continues to call for street protests. And the founder sits in a Moscow jail cell still wondering why his face swelled up last month in what officials called an allergic reaction and some of his supporters alleged was a case of deliberate poisoning.

Now, Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation says all its accounts have been blocked as the country’s powerful Investigative Committee proceeds with a money-laundering probe that threatens to deal a debilitating blow to a nonprofit which has for years exposed government corruption and now fights for survival as a self-professed force for elite accountability and political change.

Following weeks of protests for fair elections that the organization has encouraged and the Kremlin slammed as illegal, there’s palpable tension at its Moscow offices and a muted atmosphere among staff members conscious of their jailed colleagues’ absence and the threat of further law enforcement raids.

“There’s fear in people’s eyes,” said Olga Klyuchnikova, deputy producer of Navalny Live, a YouTube channel run by the organization. “Conversations have become quieter, online chats more confidential, and phone conversations less frequent.”

The Anti-Corruption Foundation was founded in 2011 by Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and a lawyer by training who has doggedly pursued evidence of corruption at the highest level of Russian politics.

Its investigations regularly provoke public uproar over misuse of state funds -- in 2017, a probe into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth became a catalyst for a wave of mass rallies that erupted across Russia that March.

Filming at the Navalny Live channel, which is run by the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Filming at the Navalny Live channel, which is run by the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Navalny is now in jail, serving a 30-day sentence for allegedly organizing the latest protests against the exclusion of independent candidates from September elections to the Moscow city council. Of the 30 or so candidates barred from running, five are affiliated with or employed by the Anti-Corruption Foundation -- all but one of them now languish behind bars. The exception, Lyubov Sobol, continues to challenge the election commission even as she wages a hunger strike that some colleagues fear will bring lasting damage to her health.

“Her glucose levels are low, her head is spinning, and she struggles to walk and talk,” said Aleksandra Lukyanenko, an assistant to Sobol, adding that the opposition activist and key leader of the current protests lost 4 kilograms in the first three days of her hunger strike. “But I treat her decision with respect, as do other employees.”

A visibly weak Sobol declined to be interviewed for this article at short notice, moments after she returned from a heated clash at Moscow’s election commission after learning her appeal against exclusion from the September vote had been denied.

Furious Shouting Match At Russian Election Committee
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On August 3, the day Moscow witnessed the latest protests endorsed and promoted by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a criminal money-laundering probe against the outfit. It’s the latest blow to hit the the embattled group. Navalny could face seven years in prison if convicted.

According to a statement the Investigative Committee published online, employees of the foundation “received from third parties a large sum of money in rubles and foreign currency which they knew was obtained illegally.” It estimated the laundered amount at 1 billion rubles ($15.3 million).

'Simply A Provocation'

Prosecutors allege that the money was distributed among several banks and then funneled into the accounts of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. The statement did not clarify who the implicated third parties are or which of the foundation’s staff stand accused of complicity in the scheme.

On a recent afternoon at its headquarters in southeast Moscow, some employees noted the dark shadow this new probe casts over a period when the organization is already facing a perfect storm of problems.

“For older employees of the organization this is nothing new -- they’re confident in their innocence and know the books are clean,” said the 24-year-old Klyuchnikova. “This is simply a provocation on the part of the state.”

Klyuchnikova showed RFE/RL the damaged door that masked riot police burst through on July 27 as Navalny Live was live-streaming a police crackdown on the protests in central Moscow.

With a sledgehammer at the ready, masked Russian police officers prepare to launch a raid on the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow on August 8.
With a sledgehammer at the ready, masked Russian police officers prepare to launch a raid on the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow on August 8.

The morning after this reporter’s visit, the office was raided again in connection with the new criminal investigation, as were the apartments of several employees. Various documents and pieces of equipment have been seized from the offices and private homes.

'What Should We Fear?'

Seasoned members of Navalny’s team seem optimistic, noting that the latest probe is nothing new, that their finances stand up, and that a record of their work -- which officially is funded entirely by supporters within Russia -- is published online for all to see.

Leonid Volkov, a project manager at the foundation and the head of Navalny’s thwarted 2018 presidential campaign, called the charge an “absurdity” and suggested it was a bid to portray the outfit as funded and steered from abroad.

“They have dismissed as nonexistent each of the 160,000 or so people who donated to the presidential campaign, each of the 8,000 or so subscribed for monthly donations, and the 70,000 or so onetime donors,” he wrote on Facebook on August 8.

Alyona Medvedeva, a Navalny Live presenter, said she saw the world in “brighter colors” before she got involved in politics as an employee of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Like other employees, she described the work as a lifestyle, not a nine-to-five job, and had few doubts that it will go on.

“What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll jail me? I find that hard to imagine, to be honest,” she said.

Medvedeva quit a lucrative job in event management last year to join Navalny’s team after she witnessed corruption in a hospital where her grandmother was undergoing treatment, and she appeared defiant in the face of the pressure she and her colleagues face.

“It’s possible that someone’s keeping a close watch and can take measures. But there’s a feeling that when truth is on our side, we can believe in what we do,” she said. “We don’t steal. We don’t kill. So, what should we fear?”

Migrants in Bosnia carry their belongings near a border crossing with Croatia. (file photo)

Authorities in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina say they will start recording injuries sustained by migrants after 18 of them were allegedly beaten by Croatian police near the two countries' border.

Una Sana Canton’s Health Minister Nermina Cemalovic made the announcement to RFE/RL on August 8, a day after 14 Pakistanis and four Iraqis were found with signs of physical trauma while trying to illegally cross the border into EU-member Croatia.

Bosnian media and a Croatian refugee assistance center said they were beaten by Croatian police, an allegation that Zagreb authorities deny.

All 18 migrants were subsequently taken to a local hospital where director Evresa Okanovic said they had injuries in the form of "swelling, hematoma, and bruises in the back, legs, arms, and shoulders."

None were diagnosed with head injuries, Okanovic said.

The incident follows allegations by Amnesty International and other human rights groups that Croatian security personnel have beaten, robbed, and violently forced migrants back into Bosnia after crossing the border in hopes of making their way into the European Union.

Bosnian officials have complained that armed Croatian police have illegally crossed the border into Bosnia while forcing the migrants back.

The Croatian police says that force is applied within the bounds of law and done humanely.

'Thousands Of Other Testimonies'

In a statement, Croatia’s Interior Ministry admitted that Croatian police "deterred" 18 adult men from illegally crossing the border near Buhaca, close to the border.

However, it denied that they were treated with brutality or excessive force.

A Croatian government spokesman in Zagreb said the incident was being investigated.

Milena Zajovic of the Zagreb-based refugee assistance center Are You Syrious told RFE/RL that she "doubts" the Croatian version of events, saying it is isn't "consistent with the thousands of other testimonies that speak of violent and illegal expulsion" of migrants.

Thousands of migrants and refugees have entered Bosnia so far this year in attempts to move through the country and on to Western Europe.

Croatia has closed its borders to migrants, as have fellow EU members Hungary and Slovenia.

Authorities report that some 5,000 migrants, mainly from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, are camped out in northwest Bosnia hoping to continue westward into Croatia.

Bosnian police estimate some 15,000 others have already managed to continue onwards this year, despite the intensified police presence on the Croatian side of the border.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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