MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s parliament expelled an outspoken opponent of President Vladimir Putin on Friday in a vote which the deputy likened to a Stalinist show trial and said intensified a Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Opposition activists said the ousting of Gennady Gudkov, the first lawmaker to be voted out of the State Duma by peers since 1995, would radicalize demonstrators on the eve of an anti-Putin rally in Moscow.
The opposition lawmaker was expelled over allegations he ran a business while in the lower house, which is illegal. Gudkov denied the charge, but the expulsion deprived him of parliamentary immunity and he could face trial and up to two years in jail.
“Everything happening here is a lawless show trial. It is a political vendetta and extrajudicial punishment,” Gudkov told the Duma before the vote, as he compared Russia’s top prosecutor to one of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s henchmen.
The chamber voted 291-150 to oust the 56-year-old former KGB officer with three abstentions.
“I received my mandate from the people, from hundreds of thousands of voters who voted for me, and only they can judge what kind of deputy I am,” he said.
He also drew comparisons between his accusers in the Duma and the “oprichniki” who carried out repressions under Tsar Ivan The Terrible in 16th-century Russia.
Gudkov raised his fist in defiance as he walked out of the chamber after the vote. Wearing a trademark crumpled brown suit, the portly and mustachioed deputy shook hands with allies in the chamber and kissed one woman deputy as he made his way out.
He is a member of the Just Russia party, and was formerly an ally of Putin’s United Russia but became an opposition force in the run-up to December’s parliamentary election.
Gudkov said the allegations against him, over his connections with a construction materials market and security firms, were “a farce” and has circulated a list of pro-Putin members of the chamber he says are guilty of running businesses.
“If they dare to open a criminal case against me and jail me, well, I will accept such fate. But I want to say once again the country has taken a step towards a civil war,” he said.
But deputy general prosecutor Vladimir Malinovsky told the chamber Gudkov had carried out “entrepreneurial activities” before entering the Duma and had not stopped them when he took up his seat.
A deputy chief of the federal investigative committee, Yelena Leonenko, said it would continue its investigation into Gudkov’s business activities until September 23, and would then decide whether to open criminal proceedings against him.
The vote on whether Gudkov should be expelled was held at the request of the head of a parliamentary committee on lawmakers’ declared incomes.
The Kremlin has denied attacking critics through their business activities, and says it has not launched a crackdown on the opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in May.
But opposition leaders portray Gudkov’s treatment as part of a growing campaign to discredit their movement.
Protest leader Alexei Navalny has been accused of stealing timber from a state firm, which could land him in prison for 10 years, and he and other opposition leaders had their homes raided a day before the last big opposition rally on June 12.
“ARBITRARY USE OF LAWS”
Putin, a former KGB spy, has signed laws aimed at restricting street protests, punishing slander and branding foreign-funded organizations as foreign agents.
In a statement issued before the vote, the European Parliament criticized the treatment of Gudkov and urged Russia “to refrain from using laws arbitrarily for the purpose of clamping down on members of the opposition”.
Saturday’s march, which the opposition expects to attract at least 50,000 people, is a new test of the strength for the protest movement in the capital. The rallies which began nine months ago have lost momentum since Putin returned to the Kremlin but his approval ratings have fallen.
Twitter, one of the main platforms for the protest movement was buzzing with angry supporters promising to demonstrate at the rally, called the “March of Millions”.
“I‘m watching G. Gudkov’s show trial in the Duma, and I ask myself the question: How can I not come to the March of Millions? Of course, I will be there!” said a man who called himself Yevgeny Shchirov.
Last month three women from punk band Pussy Riot were jailed for two years for singing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox church.
Gudkov’s supporters say the authorities are violating the law in their haste to make him the first deputy voted out of the Duma by his peers since the founder of MMM, a pyramid scheme that cost many Russians their life savings, was ejected in 1995.
They say the state can ask the Duma to strip a deputy of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution but has no authority to ask lawmakers to vote him out.
Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Pravin Char