Independent Russian election watchdog faces probe

AP News
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Posted: Dec 01, 2011 11:31 AM
Independent Russian election watchdog faces probe

Russian prosecutors on Thursday launched a probe against the country's main independent election watchdog on suspicion of election law violations _ just three days before the national parliamentary vote.

Golos is a respected watchdog that provides training for election observers and runs a website compiling complaints of voting violations. It has recorded more than 4,500 complaints related to Sunday's election, most involving the dominant United Russia party.

The Moscow Prosecutor's Office said in a statement that it opened the probe after discovering "serious violations of election law."

Golos official Andrei Buzin told The Associated Press the group has been accused of publishing opinion polls after the legal deadline. Russian law prohibits disseminating poll results for five days prior to an election.

He described the authorities' move as the "usual trick to get us distracted from our work at the most inconvenient time."

"They might as well have accused us of murder and suspended our activities while they're investigating," Buzin said.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin _ running to return to the presidency next year _ alleged that unspecified Western countries aimed to influence the election.

"We know that ... representatives of some countries meet with those whom they pay money, the so-called grant recipients, give them instructions and guidance for what 'work' they need to do to influence the election campaign in our country," Putin said. "That's a wasted effort, like throwing money to the winds."

Golos' executive director, Lilya Shibanova, said the organization is "financed exclusively by European and American international funds."

Golos and its finances came under fire last week when a television crew from the state-controlled NTV channel barged into its offices and kept asking staff members if they worked for the CIA.

Prosecutors' documents sent to Golos and seen by the AP claim that prosecutors also found "indications" that Golos is "abusing the freedom of the press by falsifying publicly important data, and spreading rumors under the disguise of reliable facts in an attempt to blacken the party and some of its members." The documents do not name the party.

The prosecutors also issued a warning to Shibanova to refrain from "continuing to conduct illegal activities."

Pavel Chikov, an attorney for Golos, said he considers the prosecutors' demands illegal.

"This is a gross interference into the NGO's activities," he said in a statement. "The prosecutors' actions are clearly politically motivated."

Prosecutors said in their statement that they launched the probe in response to a plea from three Duma deputies who asked Golos to be investigated for possible breach of election laws. One is from United Russia and the other two from smaller parties that generally back the government.