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Russian piracy crackdown targets the opposition

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A software piracy crackdown in Russia has prompted accusations of of skulduggery after elements of the political opposition became the subject of enforcement actions.

Independent news media and political parties have been targeted for attacks according to government critics, the Washington Post reports. For example, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta suspended publication of one of its regional editions in the southern city of Samara after its editor became the subject of a criminal investigation over alleged software piracy at the paper.

Software publishers in the West have long complained about the widespread use of counterfeit and unlicensed software in Russia. Critics charge that enforcement actions against software piracy are a pretext to deflect Western criticism from an attack on Russia's fledgling democracy.

"Our law enforcement finally realized that computers are very important tools for their opponents, and they have decided to take away these tools by doing something close to the West's agenda," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama research institute in Moscow. "I suppose you could say it's very clever."

The Washington Post highlights that anti-piracy police in at least five Russian cities have raided the offices of government critics, opposition parties or advocacy groups over the last 10 months. Those targeted either deny using pirated software or claim they were unaware they were using unlicensed software. They argue that the authorities are selectively enforcing the law to further a political agenda that has little to do with satisfying a Russian-US trade accord forged last year. That deal is seen as a key milestone in Russia's bid to secure membership of the World Trade Organisation.

Although anti-piracy raids have taken place against non-political organisations, these do not compare with the sustained targeting of opposition groups, many affiliated with former chess grandmaster turned political activists Garry Kasparov. As well as Novaya Gazeta other software piracy targets have included Golos, an election monitoring group, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a political ally of Kasparov's Other Russia grouping, and 63.4u, an internet news outlet.

"This is not a campaign against piracy, it's a campaign against dissent," said Vitaly Yaroshevsky, a deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, who's in charge of the paper's regional editions. "The authorities want to destroy an opposition newspaper. It doesn't matter if we send more computers to Samara. It doesn't matter if we show we bought computers legally. It will change nothing." ®

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