Russia cracks down on more rights groups, raids activists

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, holds a binoculars as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sits near watching the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik)

TALLINN – Russian authorities have cracked down on more human rights groups, ordering one to shut down and raiding the homes of advocates from another — the latest steps in a clampdown that has intensified to unprecedented levels since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine.

And President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed amendments introducing into law life imprisonment as the punishment for treason. Previously, the maximum sentence on this charge, which has been increasingly levied against Russians in recent years, was 20 years.

Police on Friday searched the homes of three lawyers with a rights group that advocates against torture and offers legal aid, Team Against Torture.

The group said in an online statement that the raids in Nizhny Novgorod, a large city in western Russia, came as part of a criminal probe launched earlier. No other details were given out of concerns for safety of the people the group is helping, the statement said.

On Thursday, a court in Moscow ordered the shutdown of the Sova Center, a prominent non-governmental organization that monitors racism and xenophobia in Russia, as well as the implementation of anti-extremism laws.

The authorities accused the organization of violating its legal registration in Moscow by participating in events outside the Russian capital.

Earlier this year, Russia’s oldest rights group — the Moscow Helsinki Group — was shut down over the same violation. The group appealed the decision, but an appellate court on Friday upheld it.

In a statement following the court hearing, Sova Center rejected the accusations and vowed to appeal the ruling, continuing its work in the meantime.

The move against the group prompted criticism in the West.

German government spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann said Russia's domestic crackdown appeared to have been stepped up in parallel with the attack on Ukraine.

“This closure adds to a sad list of important non-governmental organizations shut down by the Russian government, including Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group,” Hoffmann said.

“It’s a fact that there is no freedom of opinion anymore in Russia,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Hoffmann also accused the Kremlin of “constantly seeking new excuses to extend" the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is facing a new trial in coming weeks on the charges of extremism and yet one more criminal probe, this time on terrorism charges.

The politician, who is already serving a nine-year prison term, said he could be looking at a life sentence, if charged and convicted of terrorism.

Navalny, 46, was arrested in January 2021 upon returning to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin.

He initially received a 2½-year prison sentence for a parole violation. Last year, he was sentenced to a nine-year term for fraud and contempt of court. He is currently serving time at a maximum-security prison 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Moscow.

Hoffmann called on Russia to ensure Navalny receives necessary medical treatment denied him “despite the obvious worsening of his health" — something his allies have reported recently.

Asked whether Germany would again give Navalny shelter if he were able to return to Germany, she said: “I strongly assume so.”


Jordans reported from Berlin.