Russian court frees main opposition leader without charge

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A prominent Russian opposition activist and former lawmaker, who was arrested and faces prison ahead of parliamentary elections, was released Thursday evening without charge in a rare about-face.

The Russian opposition says authorities have stepped up a campaign of intimidation against dissidents in recent months ahead of a parliamentary vote in September, allegations the Kremlin has rejected.

Earlier this week, police arrested Dmitry Gudkov, 41, and another well-known Kremlin critic Andrei Pivovarov, 39, the latter having taken off from a plane bound for Warsaw minutes before takeoff.

Gudkov was detained on unpaid rent from 2015 and faced up to five years in prison. His supporters have called the detention a form of punishment for his plans to participate in the elections.

Police also arrested Gudkov’s aunt and searched her country home outside Moscow as well as the homes of her allies and relatives.

On Thursday evening, Gudkov – a former member of the A Just Russia party – was suddenly released. “I am free,” Gudkov said on social media, thanking supporters and adding that his aunt has also been released.

Released free of charge

His lawyer Mikhail Biryukov told AFP that the opposition politician was released without being formally charged.

Supporters hailed his release but suggested he would not be allowed to run in parliamentary elections. Gudkov’s release came as the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, often referred to as Russia’s Davos, kicked off in Russia’s second city on Thursday.

President Vladimir Putin will address the forum, the country’s main showcase for investors, on Friday. Gudkov’s case recalled the sudden release from prison of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, whose arrest sparked protests in 2019.

Supporters said police planted drugs on him as punishment for his job. At the end of last month, a Moscow court sentenced five former police officers to lengthy prison terms for planting drugs on Golunov in a case that the allies called a rare admission of wrongdoing by the forces. of the Russian order.

Kremlin critic Pivovarov remains in jail after a court on Wednesday ordered him to be held in pre-trial detention for two months.

Pivovarov, the former executive director of Open Russia, a recently disbanded pro-democracy group, was pulled off a flight to Warsaw on Monday as his plane was taxiing for take-off.

A criminal investigation was opened against the activist for having cooperated with an “undesirable organization”. Pivovarov faces up to six years in prison if convicted.

Open Russia, founded by Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, announced last week it was shutting down to protect its members from prosecution.

The group was designated an “unwanted” organization in Russia in 2017, under a law targeting foreign-funded groups accused of political interference.

The European Union has called for the immediate release of Pivovarov. Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Kremlin opponent to emerge in recent years, was jailed in February on old charges of embezzlement.

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