MOSCOW: The Kremlin’s most prominent critic Alexei Navalny was in a Moscow courtroom yesterday facing several years in prison, after his arrest last month triggered protests across Russia and Western condemnation. The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner was detained on January 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning in August that he blames on President Vladimir Putin.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Moscow and other cities over the last two weekends to call for Navalny’s release, prompting a massive police clampdown that saw several thousand people arrested. The case is presenting one of the most serious challenges to the Kremlin in years and has led to calls for new Western sanctions against Russian authorities.
Navalny is charged with violating the terms of a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence he was given in 2014, because he did not check in with the prison service while in Germany. A prison service representative in court accused Navalny of “systematically violating” his parole conditions, leading to sharp exchanges with his lawyers, who asked why his legal team or family members were not contacted before he was put on a wanted list.
Addressing the court, a visibly irritated Navalny insisted he had sent documentation to the prison service on his new location in Germany. “What else could I do? Did you need me to send video of my physiotherapy?” asked Navalny, dressed in a dark hoodie in a glass cell in the courtroom. There was a massive security presence outside the building, after Navalny’s team had urged supporters to gather for the hearing.
Police in full riot gear cordoned off the building and AFP journalists saw people being detained. OVD Info, a group that monitors arrests and opposition protests, said more than 230 people including journalists had been seized by police. Navalny’s wife Yulia, who was briefly detained at both of the recent anti-Kremlin protests, arrived at the courtroom surrounded by reporters, but declined to comment on the hearing.
The 2014 case saw Navalny spend one year under house arrest as part of his three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence and his brother Oleg serve the entire time in jail. The European Court of Human Rights in 2017 ruled the Navalny brothers had been deprived of their right to a fair trial in the case, denouncing the ruling as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”. Navalny, who in the last decade has emerged as Putin’s best-known domestic critic, and his allies see the 2014 case as retribution by the authorities for his political activities.
They say the Kremlin is now repurposing it to muzzle Navalny, who later this week is due in court on separate charges of defaming a World War II veteran. While he has never held elected office, Navalny has made a name for himself with anti-graft investigations exposing the wealthy lifestyles of Russia’s elite. Two days after he was placed in pre-trial custody last month, his team released an investigation into an opulent seaside property Navalny claims was given to Putin through a billion-dollar scheme financed by close associates who head state companies.
The probe was published alongside a YouTube video report that has garnered more than 100 million views. Putin denied owning the property and last week a billionaire businessman close to the Russian leader, Arkady Rotenberg, said he was the owner and was turning it into a hotel. Navalny’s arrest and the corruption claims spurred nationwide protests over the past two weekends, including on Sunday when police shut down the centre of Moscow and detained more than 5,400 people in a single-day record.
His arrest and the mass detentions during street protests have also triggered a wave of condemnation from the West. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is expected to raise the issue of Navalny during a visit this week to Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said yesterday that Navalny’s detention should not affect Russia’s ties with European countries. “We hope that such nonsense as linking the prospects of Russia-EU relations with the resident of a detention center will not happen,” he told reporters, in keeping with a Kremlin tradition of never using Navalny’s name. – AFP