Russian election monitor chief held for 'several hours'

Communist Party activists in Moscow hold posters saying "No to vote-rigging", 2 December Communist Party activists in Moscow have demonstrated against vote-rigging

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The leader of Russia's only independent election monitor was detained for several hours, in a move she described as government pressure on the group ahead of Sunday's parliamentary vote.

Golos leader Lilya Shibanova was held at Moscow's main airport after refusing to hand over her laptop "for checking".

On Friday, the group was fined for allegedly violating election law.

Russian MPs have questioned why Golos, a foreign-funded organisation, is allowed to monitor Russian elections.

Golos (meaning "voice" or "vote" in English) is a widely respected election watchdog funded by the EU and US. It provides training for observers and runs a website compiling complaints of voting violations.

Computer confiscated

Start Quote

All our staff face threats and psychological pressure”

End Quote Grigory Melkonyants Golos deputy director

By Friday, it had recorded over 5,000 complaints related to Sunday's election, many involving the politically dominant United Russia, which is chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Ms Shibanova, speaking to a Russian radio station from the airport on Friday, said: "We left the aircraft, went through passport control without problems.

"(Then,) they raked through my belongings and now they are trying to take away my computer allegedly for checking, allegedly for examination."

She said she feared that if the authorities confiscated her computer, further claims against the group might follow. She was released after handing over her laptop.

Asked if her detention was an attempt to pressure her group she said: "Of course. This is another game."

Gregory Melkonyants, leading activist of Golos, outside court in Moscow on Friday Gregory Melkonyants says Golos faces threats

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 organisations.

Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants said his staff all over Russia "face threats and psychological pressure."

The US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Golos was the victim of a smear campaign.

"They are trying to shut it up because Golos is the only large-scale, serious organisation that is exposing election violations," Tanya Lokshina of HRW's Moscow branch told Reuters news agency.

On Friday, the group was fined $1,000 (£641) for having reported "election-related opinion polls and research" between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Publication of opinion survey research is forbidden within five days of an election.

Russia elects a new parliament on Sunday and will hold a presidential poll on 4 March, when Vladimir Putin will stand for election after two previous terms in the post.

The outgoing parliament, or State Duma, is dominated by his party, United Russia, with seats also held by the Communist Party, the nationalist Liberal Democrats and the social-democratic Fair Russia.

In a televised address on Friday, President Dmitry Medvedev insisted Russia's political parties enjoyed "free and equal competition" ahead of the election.

Without on this occasion naming United Russia, he urged voters to choose "responsible politicians, who can help improve our people's living standards in practice, and who will be guided in their actions by the interests of voters and national interests".

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