A police crackdown against opposition activists and independent media dramatically gathered pace last week. Not only has the health of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny reportedly deteriorated to a point at which his life is now in danger, but law enforcement took unprecedented steps to shut-down his political organization and put his allies in prison. Prominent student magazine DOXA was also targeted by the security forces, which raided the apartments of its journalists.
Which journalists have been targeted?
- It looks like Russia is entering another period of pressure on independent journalism. Last week, Roman Anin, chief editor of investigative publication istories, was hauled in for questioning by police. However, Wednesday morning raids targeting the staff of DOXA were unprecedented even by recent Russian standards. DOXA is published by students and graduates of Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics (HSE), and has a significant audience outside of academia. This is very unusual in Russia (although HSE does not see this as a source of pride and has denied DOXA the status of a student organization). The magazine supports LGBTQ rights, female empowerment and — crucially in this context — Navalny.
- Four journalists from DOXA were named in a criminal case that is looking into how under-age people were ‘involved’ in political protests — specifically, calling on people to join pro-Navalny rallies earlier this year. If found guilty, the journalists could get up to four years in jail.
- Ahead of a trial, a Moscow court placed them under house arrest. Chief editor Armen Aramyan and editor Vladimir Metelkin are scheduled to be questioned by investigators every working day until the end of May. More than 250 academics from around the world signed an open letter in support of DOXA, including prominent philosophers Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek.
- At The Bell, we believe the case against DOXA is the latest unacceptable act of harassment against journalists trying to do their job. We stand in support of our colleagues at DOXA.
Navalny’s organisation to be declared ‘extremist’
- Moscow prosecutors demanded Friday that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his regional political headquarters be labelled extremist organizations. If this is endorsed by a court, it will give the authorities a reason to launch a massive crackdown against Navalny supporters and destroy Navalny’s political organizations. Taking part in extremist activities (such as working in a regional headquarters) could earn you a six-year jail term while financing extremism (such as making an online donation) carries a maximum sentence of eight years. Even a car bumper sticker could land you behind bars for 15 days — and the law can be applied retrospectively. The full repercussions of this decision are frightening to contemplate.
- At the same time, dozens of Navalny’s regional offices have suffered. Police tactics last week varied from region to region: in some places, they searched offices and confiscated flyers and banners. In others, staff at Navalny’s regional headquarters were arrested on the street.
- Those associated with Navalny continue to suffer at the hands of law enforcement. Cameraman Pavel Zelensky, who worked for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was sentenced to two years in jail Friday on extremism charges. In one of two offending tweets last year, Zelensky said he hated President Vladimir Putin and that his words could be “considered an appeal”. He was arrested in January and pleaded guilty to inciting extremism.
- One of Navalny’s close allies, former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov, announced Sunday that he had left Russia to avoid possible arrest and in order to continue lobbying for international pressure on Moscow to help get Navalny out of prison.
As all this was going on, Navalny’s health in prison has been steadily deteriorating. His supporters say he is days away from death. The opposition politician’s hunger strike has now lasted three weeks, and the authorities still refuse to allow him access to an independent doctor. According to Navalny, this is because they fear a medical report would link his health problems with a poisoning – either the legacy of the nerve agent attack he suffered last year, or a more recent attempt on his life. Over 70 prominent cultural figures including actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jude Law last week signed in support of Navalny. The Russian prison authorities said Monday that Navalny had been moved to a local hospital, although they insisted his condition was “satisfactory”.
In response to Navalny’s failing health, the Anti-Corruption Foundation team said Sunday they were bringing forward a nationwide protest to demand his release. The plan had been to wait until 500,000 people signed up to a special website with a commitment to come out on the streets to protest (currently over 464,000 have registered), but the Foundation said the situation was now too critical to wait. The rally will take place Wednesday, the same day as Putin will give his annual state-of-the-nation address.
Why the world should care
Many believe it was approaching parliamentary elections that prompted the authorities to decide to pummel the opposition into the ground. The momentum behind political repression is now stoking fears about what else might take place in the months before polling day in September.