Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests

Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
July 25, 2019

On Wednesday evening, Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court jailed politician Alexei Navalny for thirty days for calling on Muscovites to go to the mayor’s office this weekend to protest irregularities in the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Law enforcement agencies simultaneously launched a dragnet against the Russian opposition. Investigators searched the homes of ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov, his colleague Alexander Solovyov, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and municipal council member Nikolai Balandin.

The search in Gudkov’s home lasted around two hours. Investigators confiscated the politician’s computers, smartphone, and all portable electronic storage devices. Gudkov’s press secretary Alexei Obukhov said the search warrant mentioned the confiscation of all computer discs [sic] in connection with the protest rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14, 15, and 18. Identified as a witness in a criminal investigation, Gudkov was given a summons to an interrogation at the Main Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee’s Moscow office on Thursday morning. Navalny’s colleague Leonid Volkov reported that, after his home was searched, Zhdanov was taken immediately to the Main Investigative Department.

gudkovPolice searching Dmitry Gudkov’s apartment. Courtesy of Dmitry Gudkov’s Telegram channel and Vedomosti

FBK lawyer Lyubov Sobol, municipal district council member Yulia Galyamina, and ex-MP Gennady Gudkov have also been summoned to interrogations on Thursday morning.

“Would that they went after criminals this way. They are just scumbags!” Gudkov, Sr., wrote in an emotional post on his Twitter page after receiving a phone call from an Investigative Committee investigator.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Main Investigative Committee reported it had launched a criminal investigation into the protest rally that was held outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14 by opposition candidates to the Moscow City Duma under Article 141 of the Russian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the “obstruction of voting rights or the work of electoral commissions.” In July 2019,  the Main Investigative Office writes, members of a particular movement organized illegal and unauthorized rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission in order to exert pressure on members of the election commissions and obstruct their work. People who attended the rallies threatened election commissions members with violence, the Main Investigative Offices reports. It did not specify which part of Article 141, in its view, had been violated. It could choose to indict people under Article 141.2, which carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

The protests out the Moscow City Elections Commission were sparked when district election commissions found flaws, allegedly, in the signature sheets of people intending to run as independent candidates in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. The flawed signature sheets, allegedly, disqualified them as candidates, and the local election commissions refused to register them. Among the disqualified candidates were municipal district council members Ilya Yashin, Konstantin Yankauksas, Anastasia Bryukhanova, Galyamina, and Dmitry Gudkov; Navalny’s colleagues Sobol and Zhdanov; and Yabloko Party members Elena Rusakova, Kirill Goncharov, and Sergei Mitrokhin.

All last week, the opposition kept up its protests, which had not been vetted by the mayor’s office, on Trubnaya Square. On Saturday, an estimated 22,500 people attended an authorized protest rally on Sakharov Avenue. During the rally, Navalny told the crowd that if all the independent candidates were not registered in the coming week, people should go to the mayor’s office on July 27.

On Wednesday afternoon, opposition politicians told Vedomosti they were prepared to rally outside the mayor’s office on Saturday.

“The criminal investigation is obviously an attempt to intimidate us. We want to run in the elections, but they refuse to put us on the ballot. Now they say they have launched a criminal investigation. We will keep defending our rights,” said Yashin.

Galyamina also believes the authorities are trying to intimidate the opposition.

“On July 14, [Moscow City Elections Commission chair Valentin] Gorbunov was at his dacha, and the commission was closed for business. It is unclear whose work we could have obstructed,” she said.

Gorbunov told Vedomosti that he was not at the commission’s offices on July 14, but that during election campaigns the commission’s working groups and members work weekends as well.

“Time is short and we have to wind things up,” he said.

Gorbunov learned about the criminal investigation from the press. He had no idea who had filed the complaint.

“I believe people need to act within the law. [Central Elections Commission chair Ella] Pamfilova said that rallies were not a form of political campaigning, that people had to work within the bounds of the law. I can only say that the rally outside the Moscow City Elections Commission was not authorized, but it is up to law enforcement agencies to comment on criminal liability for what happened,” he said.

However, on July 14, Gorbunov had told Vedomosti the commission was closed on Sundays.

“They [the opposition] might as well have gone to some factory that was closed on Sunday,” he said then.

The criminal investigation is probably meant by the security forces as a way to intimidate protesters, argues a person close to the mayor’s office. This source said it was clear police would detain people who attempted to attend an unauthorized rally on July 27.

According to court statistics, people have been charged and convicted of violating Article 141 extremely rarely. In the last ten years, the most “fruitful” years were 2009 and 2011, when fifteen and eleven people, respectively, were charged and convicted of violating the article.

In 2009, six people were indicted under Article 141 due to numerous abuses in the mayoral election in Derbent. In 2011, Andrei Ruchkin, head of the Engels District in Saratov Region, was charged under Article 141.3 for meddling with the work of the local election commission. In 2018, members of the Yabloko Party in Pskov were charged under Article 141 for encouraging voters to spoil their ballots in the gubernatorial election, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Criminal Code Article 141 is peculiar it is mainly employees of the executive branch who obstruct the exercise of voting rights and the work of election commissions, but they are almost never charged with violating the law, explains Andrei Buzin, co-chair of Golos, a Russian NGO that defends voting rights and monitors elections.

“It was not considered kosher to file criminal charges, and so several years ago a similar article was inserted into the Administrative Violations Code. Several election observers were charged under this law,” he said.

Buzin argues that the situation has been turned upside down.

“The protesters were defending voting rights, so it would truer to say that it has been the election commissions that have been obstructing citizens,” he said.

“There is almost no case law for Article 141. It is hard to say who could be charged with violating the law. We have had no experience with it,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. “There was an incident in the Moscow Region. Candidates were assaulted, but we were not able to get criminal charges filed.”

Now the article was being used to punish political “crimes,” he argued.

“It is a variation of the Bolotnaya Square case of 2012, only somewhat lighter. The defendants in that case were charged with rioting,” he said.

Chikov added that we should probably expect more arrests in the wake of the searches.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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