A district court in Moscow on Tuesday sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to more than 2 1/2 years in prison on charges of violating the terms of his probation while recovering from nerve poisoning in Germany.
Navalny, the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, had previously condemned the procedure as a futile attempt by the Kremlin to intimidate millions of Russians into submission.
The prison sentence stems from a conviction in 2014 that he has rejected as manufactured.
The 44-year-old Navalny was arrested on January 17 when he returned from his five-month convalescence in Germany from the attack, which he has posted on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement. Despite tests by several European laboratories, Russian authorities said they had no evidence that he had been poisoned.
When the order was read, Navalny pointed to his wife Yulia in the courtroom and traced the contours of a heart in the glass cage where he was being held.
Earlier, Navalny attributed his arrest to Putin’s “fear and hatred” and said the Russian leader would go down in history as a “poisoner.”
“I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt he ordered,” he said.
“The aim of that hearing is to intimidate a large number of people,” Navalny said. “You can not imprison the whole country.”
Russia’s penitentiary service claims that Navalny violated the terms of his arbitration because of a conviction for money laundering in 2014, which he has rejected as politically motivated. It asked the Simonovsky district court to turn his 3 1/2 year suspended sentence into one that he must serve in prison, even though he has spent part of that sentence under house arrest.
Navalny stressed that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his conviction in 2014 was illegal and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.
Navalny and his lawyers have claimed that while recovering in Germany after the poisoning, he could not register with Russian authorities personally according to his test. Navalny also insisted that his rights in litigation were grossly violated during his arrest and described his imprisonment as a travesty of justice.
“I came back to Moscow after finishing the treatment,” Navalny said at Tuesday’s hearing. “What more could I have done?”
Largest protests since the Soviet era
Navalny’s prison has sparked massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand his release and chanting slogans against Putin. Police arrested more than 5,750 people on Sunday, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the largest number the nation has seen since Soviet times. Most were released after receiving a court call, and are fined or sentenced to seven to 15 days in prison. Several people were prosecuted for alleged violence against the police.
“I am fighting and will continue to do so even though I am now in the hands of people who love to lay chemical weapons everywhere and no one would give three kopecks for my life,” Navalny said.
Navalny’s team demanded another demonstration on Tuesday outside Moscow’s courthouse, but police were on hand to block the nearby streets and make random arrests. According to the OVD-Info group that monitors arrests, more than 320 people were arrested.
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 with the word “Freedom to Navalny.” Less than a minute later, a police officer took her away.
In court, Navalny thanked protesters for their courage and urged other Russians not to fear repression.
“Millions cannot be imprisoned,” he said. “You have stolen people’s futures and now you are trying to scare them. I urge everyone not to be afraid. “
Following his arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour YouTube video of a lavish Black Sea home allegedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times, leading to dissatisfaction as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn, the coronavirus pandemic and widespread corruption during Putin’s years.
Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video, and his long-standing confidant, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, claimed he owned it.
As part of efforts to eliminate the protests, the authorities have targeted Navalny’s employees and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, the ally Lyubov Sobol and several others were placed under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges for violating coronavirus restrictions.
The Navalny prison and anti-protest riots have sparked international outrage, with Western leaders calling for his release and condemning the arrests of protesters.
“Alexei Navalny’s conviction is unacceptable,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter. “Political disagreement is never a crime. We demand his immediate release. Respect for human rights and democratic freedom is non-negotiable.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russia to release Navalny. “The verdict against Alexei Navalny is far from all legal rules. Navalny must be released immediately. Violence against peaceful protesters must end,” Merkel said in a statement posted on Twitter by her spokesman Steffen Seibert.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also tweeted her support: “I condemn the verdict against Alexei Navalny as strongly as possible. I call on Russia to fulfill its international commitments and release him immediately and unconditionally. “
During a visit to Moscow on Tuesday, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, called on Russia to release Navalny and condemned violence against protests.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will visit Moscow later this week, has criticized the detentions and disproportionate use of force against protesters, stressing that Russia must comply with its international human rights commitments.
Russia has dismissed US and EU criticism as interfering in its domestic affairs, saying Navalny’s current situation is a procedural issue for the court, not a government issue.
More than a dozen Western diplomats attended the hearing, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said their presence was part of Western efforts to contain Russia, adding that it could be an “psychological pressure” on the judge.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was ready for dialogue on Navalny, but warned strongly that it would not take Western criticism into account.
“We are ready to patiently explain everything, but we will not react to mentoring style statements or take them into account,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
( Jowharwith AP)