MOSCOW: Russian prosecutors on Monday suspended the activities of Alexei Navalny’s regional offices, in a move his team said would essentially shut down the jailed opposition figure’s decade-long movement against President Vladimir Putin.
The order came as a court began considering whether to designate Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his regional offices as extremist organisations, putting them on par with the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda and banning them in Russia.
FBK published screenshots of a decision by the Moscow prosecutor’s office ordering Navalny’s nationwide network to stop working while the court deliberated the extremist designations.
“This is a huge blow to all of us,” Navalny’s team posted on Instagram, saying regional offices would stop operations immediately.
“It would be too dangerous for our employees and for our supporters” to continue working “as usual”, his Moscow office said in a statement.
It promised however that his allies would continue fighting corruption, the ruling United Russia party and Putin “in a personal capacity”.
Germany swiftly condemned the suspension order, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert saying that “using the instruments of fighting terror against politically undesirable opinions is in no way compatible with the principles of the rule of law”.
Navalny, Putin’s best known critic, has for a decade campaigned against corruption among officials and called on the president to resign.
Prosecutors this month said they requested the extremism label for Navalny’s groups because they were destabilising the country and working to alter “the foundations of the constitutional order”.
If designated as extremist, members of the groups could face lengthy prison sentences if they continue working.
Navalny’s allies had already faced routine police searches and arrests for their activism, with pressure building after the Kremlin critic returned to Russia in January from Germany where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blames on Putin.
The 44-year-old was arrested on his return and is now serving two-and-a-half years in a penal colony east of Moscow for violating parole terms on old fraud charges he says are politically motivated.
He has complained of conditions that he equates to torture, and a court in the Vladimir region where he is being held told the Interfax news agency on Monday that his defence team has filed lawsuits against the penal colony.
It said one demands that officials remove his flight risk classification, which Navalny has said means he is woken up every hour through the night. The opposition figure says he has also been denied adequate medical treatment for severe back pain and numbness in his limbs.