Russia targets opposition leader Navalny with mass raids

Anna MALPAS
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Navalny and his allies organised protests after opposition politicians were barred from standing in the Moscow parliament election in September

Navalny and his allies organised protests after opposition politicians were barred from standing in the Moscow parliament election in September (AFP Photo/Vasily MAXIMOV )

Moscow (AFP) - Russian investigators on Thursday raided dozens of regional offices of top protest leader Alexei Navalny, as well as the homes of his supporters, after mass opposition rallies this summer.

Navalny said the raids were the result of Kremlin "hysteria" after allies of President Vladimir Putin suffered major losses in local elections in Moscow on Sunday.

Navalny, who had instructed supporters to vote strategically to push out pro-Kremlin candidates, said on YouTube: "Putin got upset and is stomping his feet."

"That's what we're seeing in 41 cities across the whole country," he added, looking tired and drawn in a video hastily shot on his mobile phone.

He said the raids were carried out at more than 200 addresses in "the biggest police operation in Russia's modern history".

Police, investigators, national guard and security services were all involved and seized equipment such as phones and computers, he added.

Navalny has credited his strategic voting campaign for the ruling party's loss of almost a third of its seats in the elections for Moscow city parliament.

The charismatic opposition leader said the raids targetted his network of campaign offices and the homes of campaign coordinators and their relatives, as well as his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has worked to expose officials' questionable wealth.

"We're calling them raids but in fact they are more like assault and robbery," he said later in a live appearance on his YouTube channel, adding that in each raid "first all electronics are seized, and then the person has all bank cards blocked."

- 'Act of intimidation' -

One female activist was forced to undress and a male officer gawked as her bra was searched for concealed material, he said.

Law enforcement agencies have not yet made any official comment on the raids.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh accused the authorities of attempting to deal a "massive blow" to the organisation.

"These raids are an act of intimidation," she said.

"The police's only goal is to confiscate our material and paralyse our work," she said, adding: "We won't stop."

Police targeted activists across the country, from Russia's westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Navalny's aides said.

Yarmysh told AFP she had seen a vehicle marked as belonging to the powerful Investigative Committee outside Navalny's Moscow office but "we don't have any raids".

In the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals region, officers wearing masks and black uniforms without identifying marks prevented anyone from entering the office, local media reported.

The office in the city of Perm, also in the Urals, reported that operatives climbed through the windows and then pulled the front door down.

- Wave of protests -

The raids came after Russian investigators in August launched a money-laundering probe into Navalny's foundation, which seeks donations from the public, accusing it of taking money that was procured illegally.

Russian investigators initially accused the foundation of laundering one billion rubles ($15.3 million).

In early August, a Moscow district court froze 75 million rubles ($1.1 million) held in accounts by the foundation and staff members.

Navalny's aide Leonid Volkov said on social media that those targeted by the raids were being called in for questioning as "witnesses" in the probe.

Navalny and his supporters organised a wave of protests over the summer after popular opposition politicians were barred from standing in the Moscow parliament election, prompting a police crackdown.

The 43-year-old missed several of the rallies while serving a 30-day jail term for organising previous unauthorised protests.

Since emerging as the Kremlin's chief critic and a highly effective campaigner and organiser, Navalny has faced a slew of legal action apparently aimed at hindering his activities.

"The only way the police state could respond to the mass rallies was with mass raids," a lawyer for Navalny's anti-corruption foundation, Alexander Golovach, wrote on Twitter.

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