Armed Russian police have raided the offices of a pro-democracy group founded by exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky and searched the homes of several of its employees.
The early morning raids come less than two weeks after investigators charged Khodorkovsky with organizing the 1998 contract killing of a Siberian mayor, a charge he denies, and after the former oil tycoon said he hopes for a peaceful "revolution" in Russia.
Maria Baronova, the coordinator of the human rights project at Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation, said the searches began at around 6:30 a.m. and were conducted in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"The searches took place not only in places where people were registered, at their grandmother's for instance, but also in apartments they rented," she told RFE/RL. "Apartment owners were also intimidated during the so-called questioning. These owners have nothing to do with Open Russia whatsoever."
Baronova said her own apartment was not targeted because the authorities did not have her address.
A manager at Open Russia in Moscow, Polina Nemerovskaya, said later that searches had been carried out at the apartments of 11 people associated with Open Russia, as well as at the homes of some of their relatives.
Russia's Investigative Committee said the raids were related to an investigation first opened in 2003 into Khodorkovsky and his allies over what authorities describe as the illegal privatization of a mining and fertilizer company, Apatit, in 1994.
But Baronova said she believes the raids were retaliation for Open Russia's publication earlier this month of a report detailing allegations by Spanish prosecutors according to which Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, came to power with the help of a reputed Russian crime boss.
"We definitely see these raids as an act of intimidation and revenge for the publication of this information two weeks ago," she said.
The case opened in 2003 led to the criminal prosecution of Khodorkovsky, who spent more than 10 years in prison before he was pardoned by Putin and released in 2013, and the dismemberment of his oil company, Yukos.
Lawyer Pavel Chikov voiced doubt that the searches were legal, saying that the statute of limitations for the alleged crime had expired.
'Final Stages Of Insanity'
Natalya Gryaznevich, Open Russia's coordinator in St. Petersburg, said that police had searched her apartment for three hours and seized news articles, utility bills, personal diaries, and documents tied to the opposition party Parnas.
Open Russia lawyer Sergei Badamshin said that electronic devices, notebooks, and bank cards had also been confiscated from Open Russia employees.
The home of Khodorkovsky's spokeswoman, Kulle Pispanen, was also searched.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and now one of Putin’s most vocal critics, said the raids were not surprising.
"All those working with Open Russia are perfectly aware and have been aware from the very beginning that such pressure is not only possible, it is inevitable," he told the radio station Ekho Moskvy.
Khodorkovsky stressed that none of Open Russia's current employees and activists had worked at Yukos, noting that some of his staff were children in the 1990s when Apatit was privatized.
"The insanity is entering its final stages," he said.
He added that Open Russia had no intention of shutting down its office in Moscow or relocating to another country.
The foundation has been involved in educational projects and helps independent media as well as families of political prisoners.
Khodorkovsky fell afoul of the Kremlin during Putin's first term, when he made public accusations of government corruption, funded opposition parties, and courted foreign oil companies as the head of Yukos.
He was arrested in 2003 and convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and other financial crimes in two separate trials that supporters said were engineered by the Kremlin to punish him for challenging Putin and place the assets of Yukos in the hands of the state.
Putin abruptly pardoned Khodorkovsky in December 2013, a move widely seen as part of an effort to improve Russia's image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the former tycoon was flown out of Russia shortly after his release. He spends most of his time in London.
Since his release, he has repeatedly accused Putin of leading the country to ruin and said he was ready, if called upon, to lead Russia in times of crisis. In an online news conference on December 9, he said that a new revolution in Russia is "inevitable and necessary."