Russian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into one of the leaders of a prominent independent election monitoring group, his lawyer said Thursday.
The case against Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of Russia’s leading election watchdog Golos, is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on Kremlin critics and rights activists ratcheted up by the government after sending troops to Ukraine.
Melkonyants’ lawyer, Mikhail Biryukov, told The Associated Press that his client faces charges of “organizing activities” of an “undesirable” group, a criminal offense punishable by up to of six years in prison.
Golos was not labeled “undesirable” — a label that under a 2015 law made affiliation with the organization a criminal offense. in 2021.
Police raided the homes of a further 14 Golos members on Thursday in eight different cities, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported. The Melkonyants’ Moscow apartment was also raided, and he was taken in for questioning.
In an interview with AP Thursday, David Kankiya, a member of the governing council of Golos, linked the group’s pressure to the upcoming regional elections in Russia in September and the presidential elections expected to take place in the spring of 2024.
“We see this as a form of political pressure and an attempt to control our activities in Russia,” Kankiya said.
Golos was founded in 2000 and since then has played a major role in the independent monitoring of elections in Russia. Over the years, it has faced increasing pressure from the authorities. In 2013, the group was designated as a “foreign agent” – a label that implies increased government scrutiny and has strong pejorative connotations. Three years later, it was liquidated as a non-governmental organization by the Justice Ministry of Russia.
Golos continues to operate without registering as an NGO, exposing violations in various elections, and 2021 it was added to a new registry of “foreign agents,” created by the Justice Ministry for groups that are not registered as legal entities in Russia.
Independent journalists, critics, activists and opposition figures in Russia have come under increasing pressure from the government in recent years that has intensified amid the conflict in Ukraine.
Many independent news outlets and rights groups have been shut down, labeled as “foreign agents,” or banned as “undesirable. Activists and critics of the Kremlin face criminal charges.
Read moreRussia’s last remaining opposition voices have been silenced amid the war in Ukraine
Authorities also banned popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and targeted other online services with heavy fines.
On Thursday, a Russian court imposed a 3-million-ruble ($32,000) fine on Google for failing to remove allegedly false information about the conflict in Ukraine. The magistrate court’s move follows similar actions in early August against Apple and the Wikimedia Foundation that hosts Wikipedia.
According to Russian news reports, the court found the YouTube video service, which is owned by Google, guilty of not removing videos containing incorrect information about the conflict – described by Russia which is a “special military operation”.