A mass peaceful protest by the Moscow election commission building, July 14, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
After denying numerous opposition candidates the chance to run in the city’s election, Russian authorities doubled down on Wednesday by opening a criminal investigation into “election interference,” targeting some of the very candidates who were excluded and their most active supporters.

If prosecuted, they face up to five years in prison. Authorities also raided some opposition candidates’ homes and arrested several outspoken Kremlin critics. 

This unfolded against a backdrop of peaceful protests – extending past their 10th day – over the candidates’ exclusion.

District election commissions excluded the opposition candidates from the September 8 vote when they disqualified over 10 percent of signatures collected in their support, alleging errors in personal data and using murky handwriting analysis to claim some signatures were fake.

The country’s chief criminal investigation agency stated the candidates’ alleged interference involved organizing unsanctioned rallies in Moscow and pickets of the Moscow election commission’s office. Two candidates barred from the ballot, Lyubov Sobol and Yulia Galyamina, along with Gennady Gudkov, a former Russian parliament member and a political activist, received summons to appear for interrogation.

On Wednesday night, police searched the homes of Dmitry Gudkov, another candidate denied registration, Nikolai Balandin, a member of a Moscow municipal legislatures, and Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by prominent opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. Russian law forbids night searches, except in circumstances of “particular urgency.” The affected individuals and human rights experts suggested the night searches and interrogations were an intimidation tactic.

Simultaneously, Navalny and four other political activists were charged with calling for unsanctioned rallies in support of the unregistered candidates and sentenced to between eight and thirty days’ arrest.

The process to verify signatures collected by the candidates was flawed and non-transparent, which prompted the Presidential Human Rights Council to recommend that local commissions register all candidates who gathered enough signatures. But the authorities seem intent on keeping opposition candidates out.

On Thursday, the head of the country’s Central Election Commission told the press the commission was ready to look into the claims of rejected candidates who “are certain that they’re right, that their documents are in order, and some violations by some agencies took place.” But the actions of the law enforcement agencies speak for themselves. The government is attempting to stifle legitimate peaceful protests and assert control through repression, in an apparent mockery of the rule of law and the election process.