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23rd January 2023, 10:34:57 UTC

In the two years since mass protests in Russia against the politically motivated detention of prominent opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, the Russian authorities have been relentless in their attempts to dismantle the opposition movement and to create a more fearful environment for those defending human rights.

The Kremlin has attacked political opponents, independent media and civil society organizations on numerous fronts, weaponizing the law to bring about arrests and prosecutions on spurious charges while liquidating longstanding civil society organizations to stop their vital work.

“In the past two years, the Russian government has only intensified its witch-hunt of opposition and civil society organizations. Not one critic, human rights defender or independent journalist is safe from the threat of persecution, reprisals and repression,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director.

“Following Aleksei Navalny’s attempted poisoning in 2020 and arrest in 2021, Russian authorities sought to destroy freedom of expression in the country. This swift and ruthless crackdown allowed them to quickly stop mass protests against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year later.”

Ruthless crackdown on Navalny and his associates

On 2 February 2021, a court in Moscow replaced Navalny’s non-custodial sentence with a jail term of two years and eight months, later shortened by two months. Soon after, the Russian authorities began dismantling the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, which Navalny founded, and closed his offices. On 9 June 2021, the two organizations were officially labelled as “extremist” and arbitrarily banned.

In March 2022, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison, combined with the previous sentence, including under politically motivated charges of “fraud on an especially large scale”. But an even longer prison sentence may await him, as in September 2021 he was additionally charged with “creating and leading an extremist community”.

As if that wasn’t enough, in October 2022, authorities launched a new criminal investigation against Navalny for allegedly “promoting terrorism,” “funding and promoting extremism” and “rehabilitating Nazism.” If Navalny is convicted on these politically motivated charges, his total prison sentence may reach 30 years.

“Organizations associated with Aleksei Navalny are considered to be the archnemesis of the authorities, and have become the target of sweeping repressions. As a result, most of Navalny’s associates have had to flee the country,” said Natalia Zviagina.

Activists who stayed in Russia have faced prosecution and other reprisals. Several of Navalny’s colleagues and supporters were tried for the “violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules” following their calls for peaceful protests.

Lilia Chanysheva, the former head of Navalny’s office in Ufa, a city 1,400 km east of Moscow, became the first person arrested on charges of “creating and leading an extremist community” in November 2021. She remains in pre-trial detention and faces up to 18 years in jail.

In December 2021, Chanysheva’s colleagues, Vadim Ostanin from Barnaul, and Ksenia Fadeeva from Tomsk (both cities in Western Siberia), were charged with “organizing an extremist community” and “creating a non-profit organization that infringes on the personality and rights of citizens.” This latter charge was once an obscure and rarely used article of the Criminal Code but is now frequently used against Navalny’s supporters.

In March 2022, Vadim Ostanin was placed in pre-trial detention where he remains today. The former technical director of Navalny Live YouTube channel, Daniel Kholodny, was arrested at the same time and remains in detention on charges of “participation in an extremist community.”

In December 2022, Zakhar Sarapulov, former head of Navalny’s Irkutsk office, was sentenced to a year of probation. In January 2023, Elizaveta Bychkova and Yegor Butakov, former coordinators of Navalny’s movement in Arkhangelsk, were ordered to restrict their movement for a year – their charges were reduced after they agreed to cooperate with the criminal investigation into Navalny’s activities.

Threat of prosecution remains even in exile

Navalny’s associates who managed to flee to European and other countries face prosecution upon their return to Russia. Leonid Volkov, who led Navalny’s regional network before its dissolution in April 2021, faces various charges ranging from “creating an extremist community” to “justification of terrorism” and “involving minors in committing dangerous acts.”

The former CEO of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, is also facing a set of “extremist” charges. Additionally, in March 2021 authorities arrested his father Yuri Zhdanov, a former local official in Arkhangelsk Oblast, and charged him with “abuse of authority”. In February 2022, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Several other Navalny associates, including spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, Lyubov Sobol, Georgy Alburov, Ruslan Shaveddinov, lawyer Vyacheslav Gimadi, are wanted for “participation in an extremist community” or other alleged “crimes.” Some of them were additionally charged with “dissemination of purposely false information about the Russian Armed Forces” and “justification of terrorism” in August 2022.

In addition to dismantling Navalny’s movement, the Russian authorities have also targeted the Open Russia and Vesna (Spring) movements, arrested and imprisoned prominent opposition figures and anti-war campaigners, and liquidated the human rights group Memorial, an icon of the human rights movement in Russia. Authorities have also attacked the respected Moscow Helsinki Group, closed independent media, and promoted censorship and militaristic rhetoric in educational and cultural institutions.

“The casualties of Russia’s crackdown on freedom of expression seem endless, and yet, Russian activists in the country and abroad continue to organize in support of human rights and against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Natalia Zviagina said.

“Aleksei Navalny and his associates who have been deprived of liberty for their peaceful activism must be released immediately and unconditionally, and all charges against them should be dropped. The international community should step up its support of Russian civil society, which is badly maimed but still capable of remarkable feats of resilience, courage and perseverance.”