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.
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. .
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.