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Russian opposition says phone hacking leak is a Kremlin smear campaign

The publication of an opposition leader's tapped phone calls, laced with profanities, threatens to undermine the Russian protest movement. But oppositionists say they are stronger than ever.

Boris Nemtsov at a rally

Nemtsov is heard repeatedly cursing on the recordings

Russian oppositionists say authorities are using tapped phone calls in a campaign to damage the reputation of one of their leaders and undermine upcoming anti-Kremlin protests.

Six hours of recorded phone conversations between opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and various members of the protest movement were posted late Monday on government-loyal, sensationalist website, Life News.

The posting, in which Nemtsov is heard badmouthing other activists, appeared aimed to sow discord within opposition groups ahead of massive protests called this Saturday against Russia's disputed parliamentary election.

Tough call

In the conversations Nemtsov referred to environmentalist campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova as "just a bitch, or else an idiot," after the two argued over a protest venue. He also denigrated supporters he was trying to gather for a rally as "office plankton" who had never seen riot police in their lives.

Nemtsov, a leader in the People's Freedom Party, lashed back Tuesday at Life News - which local media says is partly owned by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ally Yuri Kovalchuk - saying the calls had been heavily edited.

"The aim of Putin and [Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav] Surkov is to prevent a mass meeting on the 24th and to split the opposition," Nemtsov said. "They will not succeed: it will have the opposite effect and more people will come out."

Only secret police and telephone companies in Russia are believed capable of launching such a mass phone hacking mission. Life News, which is known to have close ties to police authorities, refused to reveal its source.

Boris Nemtsov arrested during a protest

Nemtsov has been repeatedly detained in protests, including one just days ago

Making amends

Nemtsov said he had offered his apologies to Chirikova and that his lawyers were working on pursuing legal action.

Chirikova has meanwhile come out in support of Nemtsov, writing on Twitter: "Decent people do not listen to other people's conversations. I hope that Boris sees the organizers and executors of this leak in the dock."

Over 50,000 people turned out on December 10 to a sanctioned rally opposite the Kremlin.

Putin has repeatedly slammed opposition leaders, saying they were on the payroll of the US Department of State.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, Reuters)

Editor: Michael Lawton

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