MOSCOW (AP) — A rights group in Russia announced Sunday that it was shutting down, citing fear of prosecution of its members and supporters after Russian authorities blocked its website for allegedly publishing content from an “undesirable” organization.
The Team 29 association of lawyers and journalists specializing in treason and espionage cases and freedom of information issues said Sunday that Russian authorities accused it of spreading content from a Czech non-governmental organization that had been declared “undesirable” in Russia.
The group’s website was blocked Friday, even though it rejected the accusations, and its lawyers said they believed the government’s next step could be to prosecute members and supporters.
“In these conditions, continuation of Team 29’s activities creates direct and clear threat to the safety of a large number of people, and we can’t ignore that risk,” the group said, adding that it would take down all of its online content in order to avoid any risks and that its lawyers would continue representing their clients in a personal capacity.
Team 29 shutting down comes as pressure mounts on opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists in Russia ahead of September’s parliamentary election. The vote is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his rule ahead of 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.
In recent months, Russian authorities have increased the pressure on independent news media, designating two popular independent outlets, Meduza and VTimes, as “foreign agents” and outlawing the publisher of the Proekt investigative media outlet, while also listing its journalists as “foreign agents.” VTimes shut down shortly after that.
Last month, a Moscow court outlawed organizations founded by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist. The ruling barred people associated with Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling regional network from seeking public office. Many of Navalny’s allies had planned to run for parliamentary seats in Russia’s Sept. 19 election.
Team 29, including its prominent lawyer Ivan Pavlov, was involved in defending Navalny’s foundation in court. In April, Russian authorities launched a criminal case against Pavlov, who is also representing a former Russian journalist accused of treason in a high-profile case, accusing him of disclosing information related to a police investigation.