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Russian social network CEO fired, opposition figure convicted

Russia's space for free speech suffered two further blows Tuesday when a Moscow court convicted Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny of slander and a social network founder who provided a platform for dissent was fired and fled abroad.

Pavel Durov, founder of the Russian Facebook equivalent VKontakte, said via the social media website that he had run afoul of Russian officials for his refusal to block posts critical of the Kremlin or to pass on to Russian security services the personal data of Ukrainian VKontakte users under surveillance for their participation in the rebellion that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

“I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” Durov told the online technology news site Techcrunch. “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.”

Durov, 29, reported more than a month ago that the Russian Federal Security Service had demanded access to the accounts of Ukrainians suspected of organizing the protests that eventually ousted Yanukovich, who was a Kremlin ally.

"Our response has been and remains a categorical refusal," Durov wrote at the time, stating that Russian legal jurisdiction didn't extend to Ukrainian users.

"Giving personal details of Ukrainians to Russian authorities would not only be against the law, but also a betrayal of all those millions of people in Ukraine who have trusted us," Durov said.

Among the sites Durov more recently declined to shut down, he said, was the anti-corruption blog of Navalny, who lost his latest court battle with Russian officials Tuesday. Navalny is now at risk of being sent back to prison to resume a suspended five-year sentence on corruption charges that were widely seen as stemming from his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government.

The corruption charges were brought after Navalny led antigovernment demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 ahead of Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term as president.

The 37-year-old lawyer and former candidate for Moscow mayor has been under house arrest for two months since his detention in February for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration against a government crackdown on opponents of Putin and his United Russia party.

Putin began extending Kremlin censorship of Russian television during his first presidential term a dozen years ago and has sharply tightened the government controls over news agencies and online publications since his reelection in 2012. The stifling of independent media and social networking has virtually precluded criticism of his deployment of troops to Ukraine and seizure of territory in the neighboring country since Yanukovich's fall.

Durov in January sold his 12% share of VKontakte, which has 100 million users worldwide and is the largest social media network in Russia. The company is now owned by two Kremlin-connected conglomerates, United Capital Partners and Mail.ru.

carol.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

 

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