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article imageRussian investigators grill opposition in vote crackdown

By Ekaterina ANISIMOVA, Anna SMOLCHENKO (AFP)     Jul 25, 2019 in World

Russian investigators summoned a number of opposition politicians for questioning Thursday after the authorities staged night-time raids and jailed top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny for 30 days.

But despite the arrests and interrogations the opposition and some supporters said they would not be intimidated into abandoning plans to turn up for a new rally on Saturday.

The crackdown comes as opposition politicians fight to get on the ballot for a Moscow parliament election in September amid falling approval ratings for President Vladimir Putin.

"Friends, this is done to intimidate you. Don't be afraid," opposition politician and would-be candidate Ilya Yashin said on Twitter, urging Russians to rally on Saturday despite a thinly-veiled police threat to break up the unsanctioned protest.

"It's like with a pack of dogs: if you show your fear they will tear you apart," he added, calling the authorities "mad and paranoid".

Last weekend, more than 22,000 people turned up for a protest in Moscow, the largest such demonstration in years, as anger grows over the refusal by the election authorities to allow popular opposition candidates to take part in the polls.

Navalny and other anti-Kremlin politicians threatened to stage an even bigger rally on July 27, near the Moscow mayor's office, unless opposition candidates are registered.

On Wednesday, police detained Navalny as he was going for a morning run. He already served a 10-day sentence this month for violating a protest law.

Navalny is accused of repeatedly violating demonstration regulations
Navalny is accused of repeatedly violating demonstration regulations
Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV, AFP

On Wednesday night, police raided the homes of several opposition politicians and would-be candidates including Dmitry Gudkov and Ivan Zhdanov.

The raids were linked to a new criminal case into obstructing the work of election officials after Navalny's allies and ordinary Muscovites staged a series of pickets and rallies outside the offices of the Moscow election commission and elsewhere in recent days.

Investigators said the protests involved "threats to use violence against members of the electoral commissions" -- an offence that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

On Thursday, more politicians including Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol were told to appear for questioning.

- 'Polls died under Putin' -

"My morning began with a questioning at the Investigative Committee," Gudkov said on Twitter.

"After mass searches and arrests the elections are over. This institution has died under Putin."

Opposition politicians have worked hard to get on the ballot but say they were made to jump through countless hoops. Each had to collect roughly 5,000 signatures to be eligible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are falling
Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are falling
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA, POOL/AFP/File

The electoral authorities still refused to register most representatives, accusing them of faking some of the signatures.

By refusing to register candidates authorities have sparked a full-blown political crisis, analysts said.

Observer Kirill Rogov said the Kremlin was afraid the Moscow opposition would create a "domino effect" in the regions and unleashed a campaign of "police terror" against them.

"This is the largest coordinated police action against the opposition since 2012," he wrote on his blog.

In an editorial, independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta said that the latest clampdown spelled the "end of legal politics in Russia."

Political analyst Alexander Kynev said that never before had police raided the homes of candidates --or even disqualified candidates -- during an election campaign.

"Any use of force during an election campaign is nonsense," Kynev told AFP.

- 'Not a revolutionary' -

The threat of violence is expected to discourage many from attending the Saturday rally. But nearly 9,000 people said on Facebook they would attend or were interested in the protest.

"I will go -- what's there left to do?" Tatyana Kormer, a 49-year-old publisher, told AFP.

"I don't see any other way to get heard by the authorities," said the Yashin supporter. "I am not a revolutionary but I have to act."

On Wednesday night several thousand people rallied in the second city of Saint Petersburg where dozens of opposition candidates also could not register for local elections in September.

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