By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -An independent Russian vote-monitoring group accused the authorities on Friday of trying to block scrutiny of upcoming regional and presidential elections by arresting one of its leading members and raiding the homes of a dozen others.
Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the Golos (Voice) group, was detained early on Thursday and placed under formal arrest by a Moscow court on Friday for involvement in the work of an “undesirable organisation”, state news agency TASS said. His lawyer said he could face six years in prison.
Police also searched the homes of a dozen current and former Golos members across the country and seized cash, bank cards, passports and other documents, the organisation said.
It said one was taken to hospital after being hit on the head and stomped on the back, while another was detained for 15 days for disobeying the police.
Golos linked the raids to regional elections due to take place on Sept. 10, and to the impending campaign for a March 2024 presidential election in which Vladimir Putin is expected to seek, and win, another six years in the Kremlin.
“We are convinced that the real purpose of this attack is to interfere with public observation” of both sets of elections, said Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chair of Golos.
Andreichuk said the authorities seemed to “doubt that they have real support, that the desired results of the upcoming presidential and regional elections are achievable” if independent monitoring of the votes is allowed to take place.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The New York Times quoted Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this month as saying that “our presidential election is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy”, and that Putin would be re-elected next year with more than 90% of the vote.
Peskov later told Russian news agency TASS that his words had been interpreted “in an absolutely wrong way” but that Putin had unprecedented support and would win an overwhelming majority if he ran for president, something he has yet to confirm.
Andreichuk said Melkonyants was accused of working with European Network of Election Observation Organisations (ENEMO), a Montenegro-based NGO with which he said Golos had had no interaction since Russia banned ENEMO as “undesirable” in 2021.
Golos first angered the government by publicising evidence of alleged fraud in a 2011 parliamentary vote that sparked opposition protests, and then in the presidential election that returned Putin to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012.
The Russian government has designated Golos as a “foreign agent”, a label that carries connotations of spying.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in New YorkEditing by Gareth Jones)
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