Head of Russian election monitoring group to be kept in jail until vote is over – court

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) – A court in Moscow ruled to keep the head of an election monitoring group who has alleged widespread ballot fraud in the past in prison until mid-April next year, a month after Russia is expected to hold its next presidential vote.

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the non-governmental Golos group, which the justice ministry has labelled “a foreign agent”, was detained in August before regional elections and accused of cooperating with an “undesirable organisation,” something he denies.

Golos (Voice) has in the past deployed observers at polling stations, run a telephone hot line for complaints, and chronicled reports of electoral abuses on a nationwide violations map on its website.

The court’s decision to extend the pre-trial detention of Melkonyants by a further three months – to eight months – comes as Russia is preparing to officially begin a presidential election campaign.

Russian lawmakers will vote on Thursday on a proposal to hold the vote on March 17, when President Vladimir Putin is expected to seek and comfortably win a new six-year term.

Although Golos has sometimes advised election officials, it has faced years of pressure from some parts of the state which have cast it as a shadowy Western-backed organisation out to stir up unrest and discredit Russia, something it denies.


Allies of Melkonyants have accused the authorities of unjustly detaining him to avoid proper election scrutiny and pointed to the unusual rush to extend his pre-trial detention, which was due to expire on Jan. 17.

“In fact, we understand that there is only one reason for such haste in extending the deadline – not to spoil the presidential campaign with a court hearing over the chairman of a monitoring organisation,” said Stanislav Andreichuk, the other co-chairman of Golos.

“It would be unseemly somehow. That is why they decided to extend the deadline one day before the elections were announced.”

The reason the hearing was brought forward, according to the authorities, was because a new state investigator in the case had been appointed. The investigator said Melkonyants might abscond or try to pressure witnesses in his case if he was freed before he stands trial.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the frequent accusation from critics that it interferes in court cases and the Central Election Commission says it does everything it can to ensure elections are free of fraud.

Melkonyants is accused of working with the European Network of Election Observation Organisations (ENEMO), a Montenegro-based NGO. Andreichuk, his co-chairman, has said Golos had no interaction with ENEMO since Russia banned ENEMO as “undesirable” in 2021.

Online Russian-language news provider SOTA cited Melkonyants as sounding dejected after Wednesday’s ruling.

“I am an innocent person and I am already serving a sentence,” SOTA cited him as saying.

“I was not conducting any terrible activities, and keeping me in a cell is, in my opinion, strange. I have no opportunity to communicate with my relatives and I don’t even get calls with my mother. This is a serious ordeal for me.”

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Angus MacSwan)