Russia hands Navalny ally parole-like sentence over protests

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Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol, a close ally of Alexei Navalny, looks at photographers as she arrives at the court in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. A Russian court on Tuesday restricted Lyubov Sobol move for a year and a half after she was found guilty of violating the COVID-19 safety rules. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW – A court in Moscow on Tuesday sentenced a close ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to 1 1/2 years of parole-like restrictions in a controversial criminal case the government launched against opposition supporters after mass protests shook Russia this year.

The court found Lyubov Sobol guilty of inciting people to violate coronavirus restrictions and for the next 18 months barred her from leaving her home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., attend mass events or travel outside Moscow and its outlying region. She was also ordered to check in with police three times a month, her lawyer Vladimir Voronin said.

He added that because Sobol had already spent nearly six months under house arrest and other restrictions, the sentence will only remain in place for about a year.

The case against Sobol and several other Navalny allies was launched shortly after nationwide protests over his arrest and jailing rocked Russia all across its 11 time zones on Jan. 23.

Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ardent political foe, was arrested a week before that upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation rejected by Russian officials.

In February, Navalny was ordered to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.

His arrest and jailing sparked a wave of mass protests that appeared to be a major challenge to the Kremlin. The authorities responded with mass arrests of demonstrators and the criminal prosecutions of Navalny’s closest associates.

Sobol and others were accused of inciting people to break coronavirus regulations by urging them to join the protests.

The crackdown on Navalny's team didn't stop there. In June, the politician’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption, which he launched 10 years ago and has published dozens of colorful and widely watched videos exposing the alleged corruption of senior government officials, was labeled an extremist group, along with the network of regional offices that Navalny had relied on to organize protests.

The ruling not only barred the foundation and the offices from operating, but also prevents people associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposes them to lengthy prison terms.

Last month, the authorities blocked some 50 websites run by Navalny's team or his supporters for allegedly disseminating propaganda of extremist groups and asked Twitter to take down Sobol's account.

Sobol blasted the move as “the Kremlin's hysteria” ahead of the parliamentary election on Sept. 19 that is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the 2024 presidential election.

The 68-year-old Russian leader, 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.

As the vote looms, opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists in Russia face increased government pressure. Russian authorities have declared several independent media outlets and reporters “foreign agents” — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients — and targeted prominent investigative journalists with raids.