Head of Russian election watchdog detained

December 3, 2011 - 4:30 AM
Russia Golos

Gregory Melkonyants, leading activist of Golos, respected independent watchdog, center, sits in a court, surrounded by unidentified lawyers in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Golos directors were called to court Friday to answer accusations that the organization has violated election law.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. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

MOSCOW (AP) — The leader of Russia's only independent election monitor was detained at a Moscow airport for 12 hours, a colleague said Saturday, the latest government pressure on the group ahead of Sunday's parliamentary vote.

Golos has documented thousands of election law violations during the latest campaign — most of them linked to the United Russia party, which dominates the Kremlin and supports Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

United Russia dominates Russia's political life and has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage during the campaign, mostly from Kremlin-controlled national television. But the party is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves."

Golos leader Lilya Shibanova was held at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after refusing to give her laptop to security officers late Friday, the group's deputy director Grigory Melkonyants said. She was released after giving up the computer, he said.

"The detention was politically motivated," Melkonyants told The Associated Press.

The detention follows a decision Friday by a Moscow district court to fine Golos $1,000 for violating a law forbidding the publication of public opinion research within five days of an election.

The group has come under growing pressure since Sunday, when Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election through their funding of unidentified Russian non-governmental organizations. Golos, whose name means "vote," is supported by grants from the United States and Europe.

The group's staffers all over Russia "face threats and psychological pressure," Melkonyants said.

Kremlin-controlled NTV television showed a half-hour program on Friday evening that attacked Golos directly. The program included shots of suitcases full of U.S. dollars and claimed that Golos was openly supporting opposition parties and trying to discredit the elections.

The Kremlin is determined to see United Russia maintain its majority in parliament. President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, who serves as prime minister, both made final appeals for the party on Friday, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.

Putin needs the party to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.