A Moscow court has sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny to prison for more than 2 1/2 years on charges that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning.
A Moscow court has sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny to prison for more than 2 1/2 years on charges that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning
Just before the ruling that is certain to ignite more protests across the country, Navalny on Tuesday had denounced the proceedings as a vain attempt by the Kremlin to scare millions of Russians into submission.
His team called on Russians to rally immediately in central Moscow in protest.
The ruling came despite massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends and Western calls to free the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner.
The prison sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and politically motivated.
Navalny, who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested January 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from the attack, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement.
Despite tests by several European labs, Russian authorities said they have no proof he was poisoned.
Putin needs @navalny in jail during Russia's next round of elections. That is obvious. He fears Navalny.— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) February 2, 2021
Earlier in the proceedings, Navalny attributed his arrest to Putin’s “fear and hatred," saying the Russian leader will go down in history as a “poisoner.”
“I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt that he ordered,” he said.
“The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people,” Navalny added. “You can't jail the entire country."
Russia’s penitentiary service alleges Navalny violated the probation conditions of his suspended sentence from the 2014 conviction.
It asked the Simonovsky District Court to turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one that he must serve in prison, although he has spent about a year of it under house arrest that will now be counted as time served.
Navalny emphasised that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his 2014 conviction was unlawful and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.
Navalny and his lawyers have argued that while he was recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he couldn't register with Russian authorities in person as required by his probation.
Navalny's jailing has triggered massive protests across Russia for the past two weekends, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand his release and chant slogans against Putin.
Police detained over 5,750 people on Sunday, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the biggest number the nation has seen since Soviet times.
Most were released after being handed a court summons, and they face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.
Navalny's team also called for a demonstration on Tuesday outside the Moscow courthouse, but police were out in force, cordoning off nearby streets and making random arrests.
More than 320 people were detained, according to the OVD-Info group that monitors arrests.
Some Navalny supporters still managed to approach the building. A young woman climbed a large pile of snow across the street from the courthouse and held up a poster saying “Freedom to Navalny.” Less than a minute later, a police officer took her away.
Hours before the ruling, authorities also cordoned off Red Square and other parts of central Moscow, as well as Palace Square in St Petersburg in anticipation of protests.
Police flooded the centers of both cities.
The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denounced Tuesday's ruling.
“The UK, calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexey Navalny and all of the peaceful protesters and journalists arrested over the last two weeks,” Raab said.
“Today’s perverse ruling, targeting the victim of a poisoning rather than those responsible, shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community.”
US demands Kremlin free Navalny
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the jailing a violation of Navalny's rights and demanded his release.
"We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly," Blinken said in a statement.
Lithuania calls on EU to sanction Russia
European Union member Lithuania called on the union to pass sanctions on Russia for the sentencing, its foreign minister said.
"The dialogue between European Union and Russia is now possible only in the language of sanctions," the minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said after the sentencing.
"If the community doesn't hurry, Lithuania will consider its own national sanctions," he added.
Visiting Moscow earlier on Tuesday, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged Russia to release Navalny and condemned the crackdown on protests.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will visit Moscow later this week, has criticised the detentions and the disproportionate use of force against protesters, emphasising that Russia must comply with its international commitments on human rights.
State Department Statement: "We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks" https://t.co/p4t7gLjP16— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) February 2, 2021
Russia has dismissed US and EU criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and said Navalny's current situation is a procedural matter for the court, not an issue for the government.
More than a dozen Western diplomats attended the hearing, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said their presence was part of efforts by the West to contain Russia, adding that it could be an attempt to exert “psychological pressure” on the judge.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia is ready for dialogue about Navalny, but sternly warned that it wouldn't take Western criticism into account.
“We are ready to patiently explain everything, but we aren't going to react to mentor-style statements or take them into account,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.