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Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Russian investigators have launched a new criminal case against leading Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and his top allies, accusing them of launching and participating in an extremist group, as the state extends its clampdown on the opposition following parliamentary elections.

The Investigative Committee, which deals with major crimes in Russia, said in a statement on September 28 that no later than 2014 Navalny "created an extremist network and directed it" with the aim of "changing the foundations of the constitutional system in the Russian Federation."

Investigators said that Navalny and his top lieutenants, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, are suspected of having run the "extremist network," known as the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), while Lyubov Sobol and a number of his other allies are accused of taking part.

In their statement, investigators accused Navalny and his allies of setting up a number of social media accounts and the FBK's website "in order to promote criminal activity."

Russia carried out a wide-ranging pressure campaign this year against Navalny and his FBK ahead of crucial parliamentary elections held earlier this month.

Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in February on charges he calls trumped up while his organization was later banned as extremist and colleagues hounded by authorities. Volkov and Zhdanov are among the many Navalny associates that have fled Russia this year.

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Navalny called on his many supporters to vote against the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in an attempt to deprive it of a supermajority and hinder President Vladimir Putin from easily pushing through constitutional changes before his term is up in 2024.

United Russia won a supermajority during the September 17-19 vote, which was marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities.

Some Navalny supporters had hoped the state’s campaign against the opposition would ease up after the elections. The Investigative Committee's new case seemed to dash those hopes.

Sobol, a lawyer, told the Associated Press that she expects the crackdown to continue “right up until 2024,” when Putin may seek a third consecutive term.

She denied any wrongdoing, saying FBK’s activity has “always remained within the law.

Since its founding in 2014, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has published hard-hitting exposes on graft in the highest echelons of the Russian government that receive millions of views. .

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Two of FBK’s most-watched exposés include investigations into alleged large-scale corruption by President Vladimir Putin and former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The Kremlin has refuted FBK’s allegations.

If convicted, Navalny, Volkov, and Zhdanov could face six to 10 years in prison, while Sobol and the other activists could be sentenced to two to six years behind bars.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Police blocked the entrance to the building where Communist Party lawyers were preparing a lawsuit on September 28.

Moscow police have blocked the entrance into the building hosting the Communist Party's legal service, where lawyers were preparing to file a lawsuit against the results of remote electronic voting in general elections held earlier this month, which were won with almost 50 percent of the vote by the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party, Russian media reported.

Communist Party lawyer Maksim Sikach told Novaya Gazeta that the police arrived at the building in downtown Moscow on September 28, a few minutes before the Communists were going to leave to register documents in court. Sikach said the lawsuit has to be filed no later than September 29.

"We had been preparing a claim against [the results of] remote electronic voting for 10 days. We were all this time in our office writing the claim," Sikach said. According to him, five minutes before they were about to leave to file the lawsuit, police officers came and blocked the entrances of the building.

During the September 17-19 election, in several regions including Moscow, people were able to cast votes online for the first time for the State Duma -- Russia's lower house of parliament.

Because the results of the e-voting were published late and influenced the final result in favor of United Russia, the opposition Communist Party, which came a distant second in the polls with just under 19 percent, accused the authorities of fraud, with party leader Gennady Zyuganov announcing that all Moscow party candidates intended to sue.

After the vote, the independent election-monitoring group Golos said 78,000 more electronic ballots had appeared in the officials' Moscow tally than were issued, highlighting what it called the "shame" of "one of the dirtiest" elections in Russian history and calling for the electronic votes to be nullified.

Two protests, attended by several hundred, mainly Communist, sympathizers were staged in Moscow on September 19 and 25, with participants claiming they were cheated of victory by the online voting system and calling for the system to be scrapped.

Sikach said on September 28 that the police demanded to be allowed into the building but the Communists refused to let them in.

"Our premises are under siege. We understand that their goal is to detain us. We have all the documents, the candidates are waiting for us at the court," the lawyer explained.

Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs has not yet commented on the incident.

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