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Russian opposition activists set for court amid crackdown

MOSCOW (AP) — Two opposition activists in Russia prepared for court hearings Wednesday as authorities continue to crack down on dissent ahead of the country’s September parliamentary election.

A court in Moscow is set to consider investigators’ request to lock up Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker who has aspired to run again for a parliament seat. Gudkov was detained Tuesday on financial charges that he and his supporters allege were trumped up.

In the southern city of Krasnodar, a court was scheduled to consider whether to keep Andrei Pivovarov, the head of the Open Russia movement, in custody pending an investigation.

Open Russia’s leaders dissolved the group last week after Russian authorities designated it as an “undesirable” organization along with more than 30 others using a 2015 law that made membership in such organizations a criminal offense.

Pivovarov was pulled off a Warsaw-bound plane at St. Petersburg’s airport just before takeoff late Monday and taken to Krasnodar, where authorities accused him of supporting a local election candidate last year on behalf of an “undesirable” organization.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected suggestions of political motives for the investigations of Gudkov and Pivovarov, telling reporters that “the accusations filed by law enforcement agencies have no relation to politics.”

Open Russia was financed by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin’s rule.

Speaking to The Associated Press in a Zoom interview on Tuesday, Khodorkovsky said that the recent crackdown on dissent reflects the authorities’ concern about the waning popularity of the main Kremlin-directed party, United Russia.

Putin’s most determined political foe, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recuperating from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — accusations that Russian officials dismiss. He was given a 2 1/2-year prison sentence in February for violating terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he denounced as politically motivated.

With Navalny in prison, prosecutors have asked a Moscow court to designate his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his network of regional offices as extremist groups. At the same time, a bill approved by the lower house of the Russian parliament bars members, donors and supporters of extremist groups from seeking public office — a measure that would keep Navalny’s associates from running for parliament in September.

Khodorkovsky argued that the Sept. 19 parliamentary election is important for Putin to cement his rule ahead of the 2024 Russian presidential election. The 68-year-old Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press