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Russian Lawmakers Back More Restrictive Civil Society Legislation

A protester next to a map with a "Free Navalny!" sticker attached at a rally in central Moscow on April 21.

Russian lawmakers gave preliminary backing to new legislation that human rights groups says is part of authorities’ efforts to “annihilate any shred of visible dissent” in the country.

The lower house of parliament on May 18 passed three bills that target individuals who have supported civil society and religious organizations declared extremist or terrorist by authorities, and also widen the scope of an existing law on “undesirable” organizations.

Under one of the measures, individuals involved in the activities of an organization that has been recognized by a court as extremist or terrorist would be barred from running in parliamentary elections for up to five years. The bill also provides for the restriction to apply retroactively.

The effort comes as authorities step up pressure on Aleksei Navalny, the imprisoned anti-corruption lawyer whose foundation Russian authorities are seeking to have declared extremist.

His Anti-Corruption Foundation has already been declared a “foreign agent”-- a punitive designation under a separate law

The new measures, which must undergo two more votes in the State Duma, would effectively impose “new muzzles on individuals who criticize the government,” in particular allies and supporters of Navalny, and bar them from participating in public life, including elections, Amnesty International said in a statement.

“[President] Vladimir Putin’s regime aims to fully purge vocal critics from the civic space,” said Natalia Zviagina, the Moscow director for the London-based watchdog. “The main target of this latest, particularly brazen attack is the movement led by Aleksei Navalny.”

“Having unjustly imprisoned its archfoe, the Kremlin is now targeting all those who had the nerve to support him,” she said.

Amnesty said the two other bills introduce a prohibition on participation in the activities abroad of organizations deemed as “undesirable,” and assign the status of “undesirable” to organizations who are believed to be intermediaries in financial transactions with groups already banned. They also toughen criminal sanctions.

The measures appear aimed at neutralizing Navalny’s organization ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The ruling United Russia party is facing polls showing its support at some of the lowest levels ever.

Leonid Volkov, who led Navalny’s regional network before its dissolution in April, said that up to 200,000 supporters could fall afoul of the draft legislation.

The legislation “proposes that criminal liability should come after only one administrative prosecution, not two as at present, and, in some cases, immediately,” he said.

This bill seems to have been drafted to target Open Russia, a pro-democracy movement founded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Amnesty said.

“It is another networked structure that has managed to get on its feet in the political vacuum created by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Its activists and supporters have already paid a dear price and now the stakes will be even higher,” Zviagina said.

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