Gaunt Navalny Seen in Court as Russian Campaign Network Disbands
(Bloomberg) -- Alexey Navalny appeared publicly for the first time since ending a 24-day hunger strike in jail last week, as allies announced they were disbanding his regional political network under mounting pressure from Russian authorities.
Looking emaciated, his head shaved, the opposition leader spoke defiantly via video link to a Moscow court in an unsuccessful appeal Thursday against a conviction for defamation earlier this year.
“My dear judge, your king is naked,” Navalny said, in reference to President Vladimir Putin. “Your authority is the power of occupiers and traitors.”
Russia is ratcheting up efforts to crush Navalny’s opposition movement as prosecutors seek to declare groups linked to the Kremlin critic as extremist. His aides announced the disbandment of his nationwide network of nearly 40 campaign offices Thursday, citing government efforts to criminalize their work.
“It’s impossible to work under these conditions,” Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny ally, said of the decision on Telegram. Some of the offices would continue operating independently, he said.
Separately, a Moscow court held a closed hearing Thursday over the application to label several opposition organizations as extremist, which would mean their staff and supporters could face imprisonment for continuing their work. The authorities also disclosed a new criminal case against Navalny and other leaders of the movement.
The next hearing in the extremism case is expected May 17. Officials have already imposed sweeping restrictions on the operations of the opposition groups.
Navalny’s plight has become a major source of tension between the Kremlin and the West since a near-fatal chemical weapons attack last year that he and western government blamed on Putin’s security services. The Kremlin denies involvement.
Navalny’s campaign network was established ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, in which he was barred from running against Putin, and grew into the largest political organization outside of Russia’s loyal opposition parties.
It helped promote Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative, which encouraged voters to back the politician in each contest seen as most likely to beat the Kremlin’s favored candidate. The opposition was planning to use the tactic in this September’s parliamentary elections.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation, which also faces being labeled as extremist, has produced damning exposes of high-level official corruption, including a video about a massive Black Sea palace that Navalny alleged belongs to Putin. It has been seen more than 116 million times on YouTube.
Russia’s Investigative Committee disclosed details of a new case Thursday against Navalny, Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, alleging they used a non-profit organization for illegal purposes, something that carries a maximum sentence of three years, according to their lawyer Ivan Pavlov.
The authorities have also targeted people involved in last week’s unauthorized protests in support of Navalny, with police arresting thousands at the events and continuing to detain participants this week.
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