Navalny, Allies Accused of Forming Russian Extremist Group, Criminal Investigation Opened

A criminal investigation was opened Tuesday by Russian authorities against opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned, and his allies.

Authorities, who have targeted Navalny and his group in a many-sided crackdown on dissidents, said they suspect the men of forming an extremist group as well as involvement in one.

The Russian Investigative Committee said in a statement that it is looking into Navalny, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov for creating and leading an extremist group.

A guilty verdict could mean up to 10 years in prison.

"Many in Russian opposition circles had a hope that the steamroller of political repressions would stop after the election of the State Duma, but it was obvious to me that it would go on right up until 2024, when [President] Vladimir Putin would want to get reelected," Lyubov Sobol, another close Navalyn associate, told the Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Navalny Investigation
Russian officials recently opened a criminal investigation into opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his associates for allegedly creating an extremist group. In this April 28 file photo, municipal workers paint over an image of Russia's imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the words reading "Hero of our time" in St. Petersburg, Russia. Valentin Egorshin, File/AP Photo

Several other close associates of the politician, including Sobol, Georgy Alburov, and Ruslan Shaveddinov, are under investigation for potential charges of participating in an extremist group, the statement said. If convicted, they would face up to six years in prison.

The Investigative Committee alleged that Navalny and his allies founded the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, set up a wide network of regional offices, and launched websites, social media pages and YouTube channels with the goal of "discrediting the authorities and their policies, destabilizing the situation in the regions, igniting a protest sentiment among the population and forming public opinion about the need for a violent overthrow of power."

Navalny's associates described the new probe as part of the crackdown that took place in the months before Russia's parliamentary election on September 19 and said they expect it to continue for months and, possibly, years beyond it.

Putin's current presidential term expires in 2024, and he is expected to either run for reelection thanks to a constitutional reform measure the Kremlin pushed through last year, or choose some other strategy to stay in power. Analysts and Kremlin critics have said that electing an obedient parliament this year could be key to both options.

Sobol said the new case against the Navalny team was politically motivated.

"We've never been any kind of extremists," she said. "We took part in elections, participated in peaceful protests against injustice, we worked on investigations that received dozens of millions of views on YouTube in corruption of officials, lawmakers, Putin and his inner circle. Our activity has always remained within the law."

Navalny and his team have faced unprecedented pressure ever since the politician's return in January from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the accusation.

Navalny was arrested upon landing in Moscow and ordered to serve 2 1/2 years in prison for violating parole from a previous conviction he said is politically motivated. After his arrest produced a wave of mass protests all across Russia's 11 time zones, Russian authorities brought multiple criminal charges against Navalny's allies. Some endured house arrests, while others left the country.

In June, a court in Moscow labeled Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his network of regional offices extremist groups, a ruling that exposed his associates and supporters to prosecution and potentially lengthy prison terms.

Russian lawmakers have also rubberstamped a law barring those associated with the groups from running for public office.

Leading up to the election, authorities blocked nearly 50 websites run by Navalny's allies and pressured Apple and Google to remove from their online stores an app Navalny's team created.

"Everyone has been asking, whether the pressure would ease after the election. Here's the answer. A week after the election—a new criminal case against Navalny, Volkov, Zhdanov, Sobol, Alburov, Shaveddinov," Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter. "This is the fourth criminal case launched against Alexei while he's in prison."

Independent political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told the AP that by launching this new case, the authorities sought to solve several problems at once—including making sure that Navalny remains behind bars beyond 2024.

"For that, a new criminal case is needed," Gallyamov said.

He also said he believes it's a response to protests over this month's election results and lawsuits the Communist Party, the second-biggest political force in the parliament, is preparing to invalidate the results of online voting in Moscow.

"The authorities found themselves in a defending position, the initiative belongs to the opposition: the opposition is protesting, trying to contest election results...It looks like Putin has given the order to show who's the master of the house. The easiest way of doing that is to launch a criminal case. The authorities here aren't capable of much beyond that," Gallyamov said.