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Activists Cry Foul As Russian Court Orders Telegram App Blocked

MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has issued an order to block access to Telegram, ruling in favor of the state and against the defiant self-exiled Russian entrepreneur who created the popular messaging app.

The April 13 ruling was expected, but is certain to deepen concerns that the government is seeking to close avenues for dissent as President Vladimir Putin heads into a new six-year term.

It followed a warning from Amnesty International that blocking Telegram, which is used by senior government officials and ardent Kremlin foes, would be "the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression" in Russia.

The decision followed a months-long standoff between Telegram and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which demanded access to its users' messages. Telegram co-founder and CEO Pavel Durov refused, saying the request was unconstitutional.

Durov had ordered Telegram's lawyers not to attend the Taganka district court hearing, calling it "a farce," and Judge Yulia Smolina issued the ruling less than 20 minutes after opening the session.

Smolina said that Telegram should be blocked immediately despite rules under which Russian court decisions normally come into effect after appeals are exhausted.

Pavel Chikov, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer who represents Telegram, said the ruling was unlawful and unfounded.

"The court has openly [acted] against the public interest," Chikov wrote on the app, adding that the company will remain defiant.

That means it continue to refuse to provide the FSB with encryption keys that would give it access to messages exchanged on the app.

Durov first revealed the FSB demand in September 2017, saying the intelligence agency had notified him that Telegram was in violation of a controversial antiterrorism law requiring companies to provide access to encrypted communications they facilitate.

Human Rights Watch has said that antiencryption provisions in the so-called Yarovaya laws, adopted in 2016, would "endanger activists and journalists who rely on encrypted messaging applications to communicate securely."

Durov fought the demand, but Russian courts have ruled against Telegram at every juncture.

When the Supreme Court threw out an appeal on March 20, state communications regulator Roskomnadzor ordered Telegram to provide the FSB with the encryption keys within 15 days.

Telegram did not comply and the regulator filed suit, leading to the April 13 ruling.

On April 12, Amnesty International called the attempt to block Telegram the "latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression" in Russia.

"In recent years the Russian authorities have steadily targeted the country's few remaining spaces for freedom of expression," the London-based rights watchdog's deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Denis Krivosheyev, said in a statement.

Russia blocked global network LinkedIn in November 2016, after a court ruled that it violated a law requiring companies holding Russian citizens' data to store it on servers in Russia.

Durov, 33, announced in 2014 that he had left Russia after he was forced to sell his stake in another popular social network, VKontakte, amid pressure from the authorities.

Telegram has attracted more than 200 million users worldwide since it was launched by Durov and his brother in 2013.

It allows users to communicate via encrypted messages that cannot be read by others outside the exchanges -- including government authorities.

Russian activists and government critics have used Telegram and other social media to spread the word about antigovernment demonstrations and to publicize corruption allegations against Putin, a former FSB chief and Soviet KGB officer, and his allies.

Putin's Kremlin uses it to coordinate timings of frequent phone-in news conferences with his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, according to Reuters, and many government officials use it to communicate with the media.

In his phone-in conference on April 13, Peskov told reporters that Telegram would not have been ordered blocked if the company had followed the law, saying that "restricting access has not been an aim."

"Unfortunately, they did not manage to reach such a consensus," Peskov said. He said the Kremlin will find another messaging service to use in place of Telegram.

Reuters reported that when it asked a person in the government how they would operate without access to Telegram, the person -- who asked not be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue -- sent a screenshot of his mobile phone with an open VPN app.

Some Russians use virtual private networks (VPNs) and other technologies known as anonymizers that allow people to get around restrictions that Russian authorities periodically impose on Internet resources.

With reporting by Current Time TV and Reuters