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Net widens for Russia’s ‘extremist’ offenders

MOSCOW -- Human rights groups in Russia are growing concerned at the government’s increasingly broad use of its anti-extremism laws, after a case opened against a 71-year-old pensioner.

Pyotr Gagarin appeared in court to face extremism charges after he made a speech at a rally calling for a provincial governor to be executed.

It was one of a growing number of cases influenced by legislative amendments passed last July toughening Russia’s “law against extremism.”

Activists say the law is being used in a pre election clampdown.

Lev Ponomarev, president of the Rights of Man movement, said that he saw a “logic of intimidation” that had been extended to “the simple participants of protest movements.”

The tougher line came ahead of parliamentary elections on Dec. 2 and a presidential election next March at which President Vladimir Putin is to stand down, he added.

“All these moves aim to stifle the opposition by using a very vague law on the fight against extremism,” he said, referring to the pensioner’s case.

Another critic, Galina Koyevnikova, head of the Sova NGO which investigates xenophobia in Russia, also criticized the vagueness of the law, which she said authorities could apply arbitrarily, “shortly before the elections.”

“This type of anti-extremism risks suffocating all public criticism,” said a recent article in the weekly Expert business magazine.

Gagarin began his trial Tuesday in the western city of Oryol on criminal charges of “slandering an official” and “extremism,” his lawyer told AFP. He faces a possible three years in prison.

In 2006, a law extended the definition of extremism to include defamation of political authorities. In July 2007, amendments to the law added crimes for “motives of political hatred”, interpreted by critics as an obstacle to opposition activity.

In a recent application of the law, Russia’s Supreme Court last month confirmed a ban on the National Bolshevik Party as an “extremist” group.

In April, former world chess champion turned human rights campaigner Garry Kasparov, underwent a “check” by the prosecutor’s office for extremism after calling for demonstrations against the Kremlin. Kasparov coordinates a loose coalition of strongly anti-Putin groups.

Ponomarev too, was questioned by the FSB security service over his criticism of the Russian government. He had accused the federal anti drug service of corruption.

“The FSB finally told me that they had not seen extremism in what I said,” Ponomarev said.

Last year, he was jailed for three days for organizing an unauthorized demonstration calling for the “whole truth” over the Sept. 3, 2004 Beslan tragedy that left 331 people, including 186 children, dead.

Russian troops had stormed a school where more than 1,000 people were being held hostage by Chechen separatists.

Anti-Kremlin political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, close to the liberal opposition, has so far not been so lucky. He is being investigated in an “extremism” case relating to a series of essays.

Rights groups and the opposition have denounced recent cases against their members.

Pensioner Gagarin, however, is not a key opposition figure. The former long-distance lorry driver, a communist sympathizer, made his comments during a rally against rent rises in public housing projects.

“The whole trial is pathetic,” Gagarin said in a shaky voice on Tuesday. “The aim is clear: to silence people.”

The trial was adjourned until Sept. 18.

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