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Moscow’s chief prosecutor has temporarily barred Alexei Navalny’s regional network from any opposition activity as authorities seek to class his organisation as an extremist group akin to al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
At a closed-door preliminary hearing on Monday, prosecutors asked the court to prohibit Mr Navalny's allies from taking part in elections, using banks, organising protests or publishing anything online, said Leonid Volkov, an associate of Mr Navalny's.
The injunction is part of the Kremlin’s push to dismantle the entire opposition movement by exposing Mr Navalny's allies and supporters to stiff fines and prison sentences.
It comes as several dozen people were detained over the weekend for their alleged participation in nationwide protests last week calling for the outspoken Kremlin critic to be allowed to see a civilian doctor following reports that he was close to death.
The demonstrations, which saw thousands take to the streets in dozens of cities across the country last Wednesday, were largely peaceful at the time and resulted in relatively few arrests.
But the police have reportedly been using CCTV footage and facial recognition software to detain people several days after the rally.
The injunction is the next step towards crushing Mr Navalny’s entire opposition movement as prosecutors try to have its official network declared an extremist organisation, equating it with the likes of terror groups al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Prosecutors are targeting Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has been publishing sweeping investigations into high-level corruption, many of them in the form of sleek and widely watched YouTube videos.
One of its latest releases, which has received 116 million views on YouTube, alleges that a lavish palace on the Black Sea shore was built for President Vladimir Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied any links to the palace.
Prosecutors are taking aim at the politician’s wide network of regional branches, which coordinate protests in their communities and field candidates in local elections.
The lawsuit, which will be heard later this week, claims that Mr Navalny’s movement seeks to “destabilise social and political situation” and undermines “the foundations of the constitutional order.”
The Kremlin has become “completely lawless and does not even try to work within the framework of the law,” Mr Volkov, head of Mr Navalny’s regional network, tweeted on Monday.
“Why? The ruling makes it perfectly clear: so that we don’t put out our investigations, hold any protests or run in any elections.”
The Moscow City Court is expected to rule on Tuesday whether to suspend Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, according to the movement’s attorney Vladimir Voronin.
Concerns about the transparency of the trial were raised last week when the court ruled for the case to be heard behind closed doors as the prosecutors claim that some of the evidence contains classified information.
Ivan Pavlov, one of the lawyers for the Navalny team, said on Monday that he struggles to say what exactly can possibly be regarded as classified information in the case files that he has reviewed.
It will likely take a few weeks before the court issues a final verdict.
Amnesty International on Monday described the injunction as a “cynical attack” on freedom of expression and association for thousands of Russians.
"If and when the decision is taken to outlaw the targeted organisations, Navalny’s supporters, who are effectively the largest political opposition group in the country, could face criminal prosecution for any legitimate political activism or human rights work,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement.
A few hours after Monday’s injunction, Mr Navalny’s allies started deleting social media accounts of his regional offices and posting identical messages, saying that using the same accounts was “no longer safe.”
Ksenia Fadeyeva, head of Mr Navalny’s branch in the Siberian city of Tomsk, said on Monday that the local office would be closed pending the trial.
Ms Fadeyeva, who won a seat in the local legislature last September along with three other Navalny supporters who are currently under arrest, said that the office would have to shut down if Mr Navalny’s foundation is declared extremist.
Meanwhile, Ivan Zhdanov, a senior member of the Navalny team, said on Monday that they have stopped receiving private donations, which used to fund most of their operations, for the safety of their supporters.
Mr Navalny, who rose to prominence thanks to his anti-corruption investigations a decade ago, is currently serving two and a half years in prison for failing to see his probation officer while he was convalescing from nerve agent poisoning in Germany.
He was reported to be in a critical condition last week after a three weeks-long hunger strike over lack of medical assistance, but said on Friday that he was stopping his protest after the prison administration met some of his demands and took him to a nearby city for two hospital examinations.