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Kremlin calls in top Russian protest leader for questioning

Experts say that the Kremlin's probe into Sergei Udaltsov – launched after a documentary accused him of trying to undermine the government – is meant to discredit him and other protest leaders.

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"We don't know, at this point, whether this will lead to criminal charges or not," says Violetta Volkova, Udaltsov's lawyer. "I don't think that based on what they have they can open a case. I think it was completely faked. We are considering launching a lawsuit against NTV."

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Russian experts say it could be extremely serious. The mechanism being used here, they say, is probably to launder illegal secret police footage through a television documentary, which can then be accepted as evidence after citizens – in this case a group of parliamentarians – ask police to check its veracity.

"It's an old official practice in Russia to use a publication as a pretext for investigation," says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services and editor of the Agentura.ru online journal that focuses on national security issues.

"It hasn't been used for many years, since its potential for abuse is obvious. In this case, we might be looking at a serious attempt to open a probe into the facts of that documentary, which can then be used to open a criminal case against Udaltsov," he says.

The fact that the probe has been opened by the Kremlin's Investigative Committee, a kind of super-police body directly answerable to the president and headed by Putin protege Alexander Bastrykin, is a bad sign, says Mr. Soldatov.

"When we see this happening at the level of the Investigative Committee, it means it's serious," he says. "Just launching a probe means they can legally bring in the FSB and other services, and institute surveillance. It need never actually lead to a criminal case, they can just blanket Udaltsov legally with surveillance of all kinds."

The apparent campaign against Udaltsov comes amid a wave of recent actions that appear to target Kremlin critics, including the expulsion of a leading Duma deputy who joined the protest movement and criminal charges laid against politically disobedient banker and newspaper tycoon Alexander Lebedev over televised fisticuffs he was involved in over a year ago.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says there's little doubt the NTV film about Udaltsov was made using FSB surveillance tapes, but they might have been transformed into almost anything through the magic of film-making.

"The main goal here is to discredit Udaltsov, and other protest leaders, even if they lack any hard evidence against him," says Mr. Petrov.

"It's not the same as having to prove something in a court of law. You can just mix up footage, something genuine with something fake, add dramatic music and an authoritative-sounding narration, and it sounds convincing to most people....  Regardless of the final result, the mere announcement of a probe by the Investigative Committee serves the purpose of making people believe the accusations made in the film are real," he adds.

"Using this method, you send the message that anybody's reputation can be destroyed, and it's all perfectly legal."

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