Putin critic says he fled Russia after being told investigations would “target my relatives”

An opposition politician and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin has fled Russia after briefly being detained last week by police. Dmitry Gudkov told CBS News that he was warned a month before his arrest that if he decided to run for a seat in the country’s parliament as planned, he would “see a criminal case against some of your relatives.”

Gudkov, who previously served in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, from 2011 to 2016, had been running for re-election this fall when he was arrested on June 1. He said in a phone interview from Kyiv, Ukraine, where he fled on Sunday, that he believed Russian authorities wanted to deter his “presidential ambitions.”

Gudkov was detained for two days and said that in addition to his arrest, police raided 14 locations where his relatives live. The police were investigating approximately $13,000 in unpaid rent allegedly owed by Gudkov’s aunt, according to state-owned Russian news agency TASS. The outlet said the charge against Gudkov carries a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

At least six prominent Kremlin critics have either been jailed or fled the country since opposition leader Alexey Navalny was arrested in January. A Moscow court is considering declaring Navalny’s political organization an “extremist” entity, on par with ISIS or al Qaeda. His foundation has already been shut down, pending the court’s decision.

As an elected lawmaker in 2013, Gudkov was expelled from the Kremlin-aligned “Just Russia” party for helping to organize anti-Putin protests, and he’s since become a prominent anti-Kremlin voice. His arrest came the day after another prominent activist, Andrei Pivovarov, was removed from a plane and arrested.

Gudkov said he believed his arrest was intended to deter him from seeking office again. He said he’d never heard of the unpaid rent issue before his arrest, and had never worked for his aunt’s business. He said he’d spent his entire career in politics.

“I received a warning a month ago that if you run for parliament, you will see a criminal case against some of your relatives, and I couldn’t understand…. who’s the target. I didn’t expect that they can arrest my auntie, she’s 68 and she’s not involved in politics,” Gudkov told CBS News.

The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of all law enforcement operations in Russia, did not reply to CBS News’ request for comment on the circumstances surrounding Gudkov’s arrest.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters this week that he hadn’t been following Gudkov’s case and that President Putin wasn’t worried about the departure of politicians from the country due to possible criminal prosecution.

“No, absolutely. If this is a legal departure from the country, then any citizen can, if they do not have any encumbrances or restrictions, easily leave the country, return or not return to the country. This is an absolutely free process,” Peskov said.

Gudkov told CBS News that in the short-term, he won’t be returning to Russia.

“No way. It’s impossible because I was held in custody for two days and it was a signal from the Kremlin that they don’t want to have me during parliamentary elections,” Gudkov said.

He said he fled with his brother, driving more than 500 miles directly from Moscow to Kyiv soon after his release from police custody. He said he believes the Kremlin wanted him to leave the country.

“They talked to my dad and my wife, and they said that if Dmitry stays in Russia, the law enforcement will start new investigations and will target my relatives,” Gudkov said. “My auntie will be sent to prison. My brother can be also in dangerous situation. So unfortunately they can be held… hostage.”

For now Gudkov said he plans to settle with relatives in Bulgaria, and he’s unsure of when, or if, he’ll return to Russia.

“I want to return. I want to come back, of course, but I should consider two factors, like risks and threats and the possibility to be effective in the country, to support independent journalists and political prisoners. Maybe it’s more effective to do these activities out of Russia,” Gudkov said. “I need to think, to discuss this situation with my allies, with the, some smart people who are also out of the country, and we need to think of the future of political protest.”

Mary Ilyushina contributed reporting from Moscow.

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