Russian opposition activist taken off flight faces two-month detention

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FILE PHOTO: Andrei Pivovarov, member of Open Russia opposition group, attends a demonstration in Saint Petersburg

MOSCOW (Reuters) -A Russian court on Wednesday ruled to keep opposition activist Andrei Pivovarov, who was seized off a flight that was about to take off for Poland, in custody for two months pending a trial.

Police removed Pivovarov, a former director of Open Russia, a now defunct opposition group linked to exiled former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, from the plane at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport late on Monday.

Pivovarov stands accused of violating Russia's legislation on "undesirable organisations", a designation that effectively outlaws any group. Open Russia folded its activities in Russia last week to prevent its supporters from facing criminal prosecution.

Pivovarov's case and the detention on Tuesday of Dmitry Gudkov, another Kremlin critic, have prompted opposition supporters to decry what they say are attempts by the authorities to smother them ahead of a parliamentary election in September.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday that the cases against the two men had nothing to do with politics.

A Moscow court will hold a pre-trial hearing on Thursday in the case of Gudkov, who was detained after police raided his summer cottage and searched the property of his family members, as well as that of his current and former staff.

Gudkov, a former parliamentarian, is a prominent member of the liberal opposition and often appears at street protests.

TASS, citing unnamed sources, said on Tuesday Gudkov had been detained for 48 hours on suspicion that he had failed to pay a debt under a lease agreement for a non-residential building in 2015-2017. Gudkov could be jailed for up to five years if charged and found guilty, TASS said.

Gudkov's father Gennady, a former politician who is also critical of the Kremlin, said the case against his son was politically motivated.

"This amounts to the elimination of Russia's political field," Gennady Gudkov told Reuters. "This creates conditions under which Dmitry Gudkov will not be able to be elected to the State Duma (lower house of parliament)."

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Angelina Kazakova, Alexander Marrow and Dmitry Antonov; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams)