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Russian authorities suspend operations of Navalny's offices

Russian authorities suspend operations of Navalny's offices

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Russian authorities on Monday ordered the offices of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to halt their activities pending what would be a landmark court ruling on whether they should be outlawed as an extremist group. The injunction from the Moscow prosecutor’s office was another step in a sweeping crackdown on Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, and his organizations. The prosecutor’s office petitioned a court this month to label Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and network of regional offices as extremist groups.

It is a major challenge for Navalny’s embattled team, with its leader in prison and dozens of its members under arrest, targeted for raids by law enforcement, or facing criminal charges. Such a label would outlaw their activities and expose members and supporters to lengthy prison terms, according to human rights advocates.

“Tens of thousands of peaceful activists and the staff of Alexei Navalny’s organizations are in grave danger — if their organizations are deemed ‘extremist,’ they will be at imminent risk of criminal prosecution,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, in a statement on April 17. She called the possible move “one of the most serious blows for the rights to freedom of expression and association in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”

The prosecutors also asked a Moscow court to restrict the activities of the foundation by banning it from spreading information in the media, taking part in elections, using banks or organizing public events, according to Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer representing the Foundation. The ruling on the motion is expected later on Monday.

The injunction from the prosecutor’s office was posted on social media by Navalny’s allies, who reject the accusations and insist the actions are politically motivated.

“It’s a total travesty of justice and lawlessness once again in Putin’s Russia,” said top Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol.

The prosecutor’s office said Monday it resorted to these measures because “leaders and members” of the foundation and Navalny’s offices “continue to carry out unlawful activities, for instance, hold unlawful mass public events. ... for example, on April 21” — a reference to a wave of nationwide rallies that day supporting Navalny.

“They’re just screaming here: We’re scared of your activities, we’re scared of your protests, we’re scared of your Smart Voting,” tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, Navalny’s top ally and director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption.

The Smart Voting project is designed to support candidates who are most likely to beat those backed by United Russia, the party backed by the Kremlin, in various local elections. That plan was successful in some of last year’s regional balloting.

Navalny’s foundation opened 10 years ago and has since targeted high-ranking Russian officials with exposes on corruption, many in the form of colorful and widely watched YouTube videos. One of the latest postings, which has received 116 million views alleges that a lavish palace on the Black Sea shore was built for Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied there are any links to Putin.

Along with the foundation, Navalny set up a vast network of regional offices in dozens of Russian regions when he was campaigning to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. He eventually was barred from running but kept the infrastructure in place.

Soon, these regional “headquarters” began their own investigations of graft by local officials and recruited activists, some of whom would later run for office. The regional offices also were instrumental in organizing nationwide rallies in support of Navalny this year.

Navalny himself was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — accusations that Russian officials reject.

The arrest triggered protests at the time across Russia that proved to be the biggest show of defiance in years. However, they didn’t stop authorities from putting Navalny on trial for the violating terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction widely believed to be politically motivated. He was ordered to serve 2½ years in prison and last month was transferred to a penal colony notorious for its harsh conditions.

On Wednesday, another wave of protests in support of Navalny swept across cities in all of the country’s 11 time zones. Unlike the past, police in many cities didn’t interfere with the demonstrations. But Navalny’s aides in many regions were detained both before and after protests. Over the weekend, several other opposition activists were arrested.

Sobol, who was detained in Moscow hours before the protest started, was fined the equivalent of $4,000 on the charge of repeatedly violating protest regulations.

In light of Monday’s injunction, Navalny’s offices posted announcements on social media saying they’re suspending their activities. “It’s foolish to get involved in a battle that can’t be won,” Sergei Boiko, head of Navalny’s office in Siberia’s Novosibirsk, wrote on Facebook.

Navalny’s top strategist and head of the regional network Leonid Volkov told the media that all offices have halted their operation.

Both the foundation and the regional offices have been targeted regularly with raids, fines and detentions of activists before. But the extremism lawsuit takes the pressure to a new level, Sobol told The Associated Press on Friday.

“Labeling us as extremists — contrary to the common sense and to the laws of this country, because obviously we’re not involved in any extremism — is quite a serious attack on our organization. We will have to survive in completely different conditions,” Sobol said. “But I am sure our work won’t stop.”

The case against Navalny’s foundation and regional offices will heard by the Moscow City Court behind closed doors. It remains unclear what evidence the authorities have against the organizations, because some of the case files contain state secrets, according to Navalny’s allies.

Navalny’s team said they prepared a motion at his behest to allow him to participate in the court proceedings. “To carry out these court proceedings without the public is absurd. But to ban the work of Navalny’s headquarters without Navalny is even more absurd. And it’s not just absurd, it’s illegal,” the team said in a statement on Navalny’s blog, promising to file the motion “shortly.”

Turkey announces strictest lockdown so far as virus surges: Turkey’s president has announced the country’s strictest pandemic restrictions so far, closing businesses and schools, limiting travel and instructing people to stay at home for nearly three weeks starting Thursday, to fight a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Turkey had so far instituted partial lockdowns to curb infections and to keep businesses running as it faces a significant economic downturn.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that all businesses would have to close down unless otherwise stated by the interior ministry. Those exempt from the lockdown are expected to include, agriculture, health-care and hygiene businesses. Supermarkets will remain open except on Sundays. Intercity travel will require permissions, and schools will switch to online education. The measures will be in place until May 17 and include the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

“There will an uninterrupted restriction on going outside between these dates,” Erdogan said, although exceptions were expected to be announced for shopping, visits to hospitals or doctors and essential workers going to their jobs. Turkey had previously instructed people to stay at home on evenings, weekends and holidays.

Erdogan said that without stricter restrictions and lower infection rates, there would be a “heavy price” for tourism, trade and education. He said the aim is to reduce daily infections to 5,000. Confirmed daily infections Monday stood at 37,312 — down from a record of more than 63,000 in mid-April.

Infections and deaths soared after Turkey lifted partial restrictions in March, when the government tried out a “controlled normalization” effort by categorizing Turkey’s provinces into four risk tiers. That attempt failed and the virus spread across cities and provinces, aided by mutations that made it more contagious.

The country of 83 million has recorded more than 4,6 million infections and a total 38,711 deaths.

Police in Belarus block rally marking Chernobyl anniversary: Belarusian authorities on Monday enforced tight security measures to prevent an opposition rally marking the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. The military and police flooded the center of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, blocking central avenues to thwart a planned march. Police arrested about 20 people, according to the Viasna human rights group.

Earlier in the day, several dozen women dressed in black and wearing black masks staged a demonstration on the outskirts of the capital. The tough police action is part of the authorities’ relentless crackdown on protests were triggered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August election that the opposition saw as rigged.

The massive demonstrations sparked by the vote attracted as many as 200,000 people. More than 34,000 were arrested during months of protests, and many of them were beaten by police. Most prominent opposition figures have fled Belarus or have since been jailed.

In the past years, the opposition marked the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophes with annual marches, reflecting the massive damage the country has suffered.

Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl power plant in then-Soviet Ukraine exploded and caught fire on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation across Europe in the world’s worst nuclear accident.

President Lukashenko took part in a requiem rally for the Chernobyl disaster Monday in the town of Bragin, some 360 km (225 miles) south-east of Minsk.

The Belarusian opposition has charged that the authorities have been concealing the true scope of the catastrophe, which has contaminated larges swathes of land in Belarus.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the August vote who left Belarus under official pressure, denounced the post-election crackdown as a “political and humanitarian Chernobyl.”

Cuomo on sex harassment claims, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’: Cuomo on sex harassment claims, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ In his first face-to-face encounter with journalists in months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday flatly denied he had done anything inappropriate with any of the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct and harassment. Speaking to reporters at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, the Democrat abandoned his past approach of expressing contrition for some past behavior while declining to address whether specific allegations were true.

“You were in those rooms. You know the truth. So can you tell the people of the state of New York yes or no? Did you do the things you were accused of?” asked New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley.

“To put it very simply, no.” Cuomo said.

“All the groping, the sexual harassment, you deny all of that?” McKinley said.

“That’s right. Yes,” Cuomo said.

Several current and former state employees and other women have accused Cuomo of making unwanted sexual remarks and advances, giving them unwanted kisses or touching them inappropriately.

One female aide said Cuomo groped her breasts after summoning her to his official residence.

Before Monday, Cuomo had repeatedly denied he touched anyone inappropriately. He’s said “ sorry ” for making some people uncomfortable with comments or gestures he claimed were playful.

Cuomo’s said he likes to hug and kiss people because of his Italian-American heritage.

Asked if he would consider disciplining himself or resigning if the state attorney general, who is investigating the claims, reports he did harass women, Cuomo dismissed that possibility.

“The report can’t say anything different because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cuomo said.

This was the first time Cuomo has allowed a group of journalists to question him in person since sexual harassment allegations surfaced in December.

For months, citing COVID-19 precautions, he has taken questions only via telephone or internet conference calls — forums where his staff can control who asks questions and journalists often aren’t allowed to ask follow-up queries.

A lawyer for Charlotte Bennett, a former aide who accused Cuomo of hitting on her while they worked together, said the governor’s new claim he did nothing wrong was “revisionist history.”

“Just weeks ago he admitted numerous times to making ‘jokes’ and other inappropriate comments to Ms. Bennett, which are defined as sexual harassment under the very policies he enacted,” the attorney, Debra Katz, said.

“Does he really not understand that sexually propositioning a 25 year-old staffer after making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature is illegal?” she asked.

Cuomo has defied calls for his resignation from many of New York’s most influential Democrats, including most members of the state’s congressional delegation and a majority of state lawmakers.

He has urged the public to await the results of investigations being conducted by Attorney General Letitia James and the state Assembly’s judiciary committee, which is exploring whether there are grounds to impeach him.

James and the legislative committee are also investigating whether Cuomo used state resources for his book on pandemic leadership. And the Assembly committee and federal prosecutors are scrutinizing his administration’s months-long refusal to release how many nursing home residents died of COVID-19 in all.

No space junk threatened SpaceX crew after all: SpaceX’s four astronauts had barely settled into orbit last Friday when they were ordered back into their spacesuits because of a potential collision with orbiting junk. It turns out there was no object and no threat, the U.S. Space Command acknowledged Monday. The false alarm is under review.

Lt. Col. Erin Dick, a spokeswoman for Space Command, said it was believed at the time that an object was going to come close to the newly launched SpaceX capsule carrying a crew to the International Space Station. “However, we quickly realized this was a reporting error,” she wrote in an email, “and that there was never a collision threat because there was no object at risk of colliding with the capsule.”

She declined to comment further, saying additional information should be available later this week once they understand what happened.

Astronauts typically get a fair amount of advance notice of potential close calls, with enough time to even dodge out of the way, if necessary. Friday’s situation, however, popped up quickly — the astronauts got barely a half-hour heads-up.

The Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron alerted NASA about 45 minutes before the potential conjunction, according to officials at Johnson Space Center in Houston. SpaceX and NASA notified the astronauts 15 minutes later, urging them to put on their suits right away and lower their helmet visors. By then, there wasn’t enough time to change the capsule’s path. The drama played out live on NASA TV.

The U.S., French and Japanese astronauts had practiced this many times before flight, according to NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries.

“Of course, we’re always happy to hear that there never was a threat, but we’re also glad the procedures were in place and the crew would have been ready if the threat had been real,” he said.

The Dragon capsule and its crew safely reached the space station on Saturday, with no further surprises. The new arrivals will spend six months there.

Based at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, the 18th Space Control Squadron is tracking more than 32,000 objects in orbit, mostly defunct satellites and rocket parts. Some is as small as 4 inches. Even something that little can do big damage to a spacecraft at high speed. The space station is particularly vulnerable because of its sprawling size.

U.S. spy satellite launches into space from California: A U.S. spy satellite was launched into space from California on Monday. The NROL-82 satellite lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at 1:47 p.m. The launch was webcast until the second stage ignited and the protective cover over the satellite was jettisoned. As is customary, the webcast then ceased at the request of the National Reconnaissance Office. The NRO is the government agency in charge of developing, building, launching and maintaining U.S. intelligence satellites.

— Associated Press

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