MOSCOW – A Russian court has restricted some of the country’s main opposition figures to house arrest on charges of violating the security rules of the coronavirus, apparently an attempt by the government to use the restrictions to muzzle its opponents.
The legal action, called a ‘sanitary case’, is aimed at ten opposition politicians and dissidents, including the senior leadership of Aleksei A. Navalny’s organization and members of the protest group Pussy Riot. All are accused of inciting others to violate rules introduced last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They denied that they did.
Prosecutors say their posts on social media that promoted a protest in Moscow in January led to the attendance of 19 people who had to legally isolate themselves due to positive Covid-19 tests, thus endangering those who attended.
Defense attorneys say the authorities are cynically distorting coronavirus rules to isolate people who pose no risk of infection but are considered by the government to be political.
“The ideological intent is to label opposition figures as contagious, toxic, as poisoners to the public,” said Danil Berman, a lawyer for Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot, one of those targeted. The isolation of key leaders ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for this year is also hampering the opposition, he said.
Many people around the world have complained that restrictions on coronavirus infringe on their freedoms as a by-product of security measures. But the Russian opposition members claim that the government is using the restrictions against them with the aim of restricting their freedom.
Online positions of the opposition figures who promoted the protest did not specifically encourage people who were ill to attend, as the government said, defense lawyers say. Exclusions in Moscow were in any case usually lifted months in advance.
Defense attorneys also say the rules are applied selectively to restrict opposition activities, while pro-government events can continue with few restrictions, even though the virus would spread so easily at any gathering.
The organizers of a series of pro-government rallies in January, where workers gathered at their workplaces or in stadiums to applaud President Vladimir V. Putin, had no effect.
And selective application was continued.
Regional authorities in Crimea, the peninsula of Russia annexed from Ukraine seven years ago, took place on Thursday restrictions lifted at mass rallies to celebrate the commemoration of the takeover, an event that is politically beneficial to the Kremlin.
A few days earlier, police had gathered about 200 opposition members of city councils who had gathered for a conference in Moscow on Saturday, citing violations of the mask rules.
The ‘sanitary case’ is by far the highest action. Among the accused is the brother of mr. Navalny, a spokesman for his movement, and a political ally who plans to run for parliament this year.
Most are forbidden to leave their homes, not even to walk, and recall the strictest blockade of the early phase of the virus response in Russia and some other countries, although restrictions have mostly been lifted for most Russian people.
On Thursday, a court in Moscow extended house arrest for four of the accused until June, and lawyers are expecting similar rulings for the rest of the group during a trial on Friday.
Paradoxically, the opposition in Russia has tried to gain political traction with criticism of Mr. Putin because he did not impose stricter measures to control the virus and provide medical workers with protective equipment.
Some observers have noted that they were vulnerable to such repression.
“It’s the uncomfortable feeling when you lock yourself in,” Aleksandr Kynev, a political commentator, written on Facebook. “Sanitary oppression will disillusion you.”