Moscow: Russian police on Tuesday raided the offices of election watchdog Golos as well as the homes of its employees, a lawyer for the group said, amid an ever-increasing crackdown on independent voices in the country.
The searches, which came ahead of regional elections this autumn, coincided with an unveiling by Russian authorities of the first 12 American and other groups to be likely put on the list of "undesirable" organisations.
On Tuesday, police raided the homes of several Golos employees, including the apartment of senior executive Grigory Melkonyants and confiscated equipment including computers.
"They are searching the offices as we speak," a Golos lawyer, Olga Gnezdilova, told AFP.
Police have linked the raids to a tax investigation against the head of the group`s branch in the Volga city of Samara, but Golos described the searches as the latest salvo in a campaign to intimidate it and other Kremlin critics.
Over the past few years the independent monitor group Golos (Voice), which has documented widespread claims of election fraud, has been targeted by a campaign of intimidation including accusations of serving US interests.
Melkonyants said that with the raids authorities have taken their attempts to "strangle" Golos to a new level.
"They`ve now resorted to extreme measures," he said in remarks broadcast on independent television channel Dozhd.
He chalked up the searches to the group`s plans to monitor local elections across Russia this autumn.
"An election campaign has started for Golos in earnest," he said on Twitter.
Critics accuse authorities of seeking to snuff out the last signs of dissent on the back of patriotic euphoria and anti-Western sentiment triggered by Moscow`s seizure of Crimea and several rounds of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Registered as a "foreign agent," Golos will not receive any state funding next year and has been forced to launch a public appeal to prevent a cash shortfall.
Russia`s opposition led by top activist Alexei Navalny has vowed to run in parliamentary polls next year as well as local elections this autumn, though they could be barred by authorities from entering the race.
Authorities are seeking to bring forward by three months parliamentary elections that were initially scheduled to take place in December 2016.
Prominent Russian rights advocates including Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Sergei Kovalev said the searches were aimed at preventing Golos from documenting possible violations at the upcoming regional elections.
"These events cannot be explained as anything but preparations by the authorities to violate the rights of voters and opposition electoral associations and candidates," they said in a joint statement. On Tuesday, Russian senators also announced the first 12 foreign organisations that are likely to be put on the list of "undesirable" organisations expected to be outlawed in the country.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee at the Russian parliament`s upper house, said that most of them were US organisations but also included Polish and Ukranian groups.
On Wednesday, the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, is expected to adopt a formal appeal to the General Prosecutor`s Office and the foreign ministry with a view to putting the 12 foreign organisations on the blacklist.
"We want to defend Russian civil society from outside manipulations," Kosachev said.
Under the law passed in May authorities can ban foreign NGOs and go after their employees, who risk up to six years in prison or being barred from the country.
The law raises pressure on NGOs with foreign funding which according to legislation adopted in 2012 have to register as "foreign agents."