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Russian bill would bar Navalny allies from seeking office

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian lawmakers on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that bars members of groups designated as extremist from running for public office, a measure intended to prevent allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny from seeking parliament seats.

The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, quickly endorsed the bill in a crucial second reading. After three readings, it would need to be approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin to become law.

Lawmakers are considering the bill while Moscow prosecutors have moved to designate Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his regional offices as extremist groups. Navalny and his allies have denounced the proceedings as a move to stifle critical voices before September’s parliamentary election.

Navalny’s regional “headquarters,” as his team called them, have been instrumental in implementing the Smart Voting strategy — a project designed to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those from the Kremlin’s dominant United Russia party in various elections.

The new bill that received the tentative approval Tuesday is widely seen as part of Kremlin efforts to keep any Navalny associates and allies from September’s ballot.

Navalny, who is Putin’s most adamant critic, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — accusations that Russian officials reject. In February, Navalny received a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as politically motivated.

In remarks posted Tuesday on his Instagram account, Navalny said Russian investigators had told him about three new criminal probes against him. He ridiculed the accusations, which he said lacked any basis.

“My powerful criminal syndicate is growing,” he said in acerbic comments, noting that 21 investigators have been assigned to investigate his alleged wrongdoing.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press