The US Department of Justice on Tuesday indicted the founder and three members of an African-American nationalist group, accused of collaborating with Russian intelligence services to influence elections in the United States.
Omali Yeshitela, founder of the African People's Socialist Party (APSP) and the Uhuru Movement, and three other party members, Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel, and Augustus Romain, are believed to have served as agents in the service of Russia and conspired against American interests, including trying to influence several elections.
They risk up to ten years in prison.
According to the prosecution, the four defendants received money and support from Alexander Ionov , a Russian citizen who operated undercover and presented himself as the leader of an anti-globalization movement, as well as from spies of the FSB, the Russian secret services.
"Today's announcement paints an alarming picture of the actions of the Russian government and the limits the FSB is willing to cross to interfere with our elections, sow discord in our country and ultimately recruit citizens Americans to help them in their efforts", denounced Kurt Ronnow, acting assistant director of the FBI.
According to American justice, the defendants all knew that Mr. Ionov, who is suspected of having now fled to Russia, was working for Moscow. "Russia's foreign intelligence service allegedly used First Amendment rights — freedoms that Russia denies its own citizens — to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, of the Justice Department's National Security Division.
"The department will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt U.S. elections in the service of hostile foreign interests, whether the perpetrators are U.S. citizens or foreigners abroad," Mr. Olsen in a press release.
The black nationalist movement, associated with the names of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers, gained momentum in the United States in the middle of the 20th century and claims a logic of confrontation with the authorities to defend the interests of African Americans.
Founded in 1972, the APSP defends "the African working class" against "American capitalist and colonialist domination", according to its website.
Mr. Yeshitela, its founder, traveled to Russia in 2015 to strike a deal with Mr. Ionov's movement, according to the prosecution. In 2016, he financed a tour of demonstrations organized by the APSP to support a "petition on the crime of genocide against the African people in the United States".
Beyond this destabilization operation, the defendants also tried to influence the 2017 and 2019 local elections in Saint Petersburg, Florida, where their party is based. They are also suspected of having sought to influence the 2020 national elections.
The Uhuru Group had one candidate who unsuccessfully ran for St. Petersburg City Council in 2019, Eritha Akile Cainion, who is not charged in the indictment. She held a press conference in 2022 in which she defended Russia, saying "the world's colonial powers have been collaborating against Russia" for more than a century.
St. Petersburg Mayor, Democrat Ken Welch, called the allegations troubling. "It is important to stress that the City of St. Petersburg does not support, condone or tolerate any foreign government engaging in activities aimed at undermining or influencing our elections," Welch said in a statement.
In March 2022, Mr. Yeshitela held a press conference during which he said that the "African People's Socialist Party calls for unity with Russia in its defensive war in Ukraine against the world colonial powers". He also called for independence for the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
In 2022, one of the defendants, Augustus Romain, also allegedly received funds from Mr. Ionov "to promote the interests of Russia in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine", according to the prosecution.