This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A Moscow court has ordered Aleksei Navalny to serve 2 years and 8 months in prison after finding him guilty of violating his parole in a reversal of a suspended sentence the Russian opposition politician says was driven by President Vladimir Putin’s “fear and hatred.”
Judge Natalya Repnikova on February 2 ordered a suspended 3 1/2 year sentence Navalny received in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony, adding that time previously spent under house arrest in the sentence would count as time served, thus reducing his incarceration to 2 years and 8 months. Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said the ruling will be appealed.
Immediately after the ruling, Navalny’s supporters immediately called for further large-scale protests that have rocked the country over the past two weekends while also kneecapping his team’s ability to campaign against the ruling United Russia party ahead of key parliamentary elections in September.
The court decision sparked severe Western criticism amid already tense relations.
The United States condemned the decision. “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,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 2, minutes after the ruling in a Moscow court.
“Today’s perverse court decision shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominik Raab said in a tweet.
The judge made the ruling following a tense hearing that preceded two hours of deliberation. Navalny faced a maximum sentence of 3 1/2 years in prison.
Hundreds of Navalny supporters gathered in the vicinity of the courthouse, which had been blocked off by law enforcement, to await the ruling. At least 300 had been detained prior to the judge’s decision, according to independent rights monitor OVD-Info.
The ruling comes after tens of thousands of Russians across the country rallied the past two weekends calling for the release of Navalny in some of the biggest protests against Putin’s rule in a decade.
The anti-corruption campaigner has been held in detention since his high-stakes return on January 17 from Germany, where he had been recovering from an August nerve-agent poisoning he blames Putin of ordering.
The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) accuses Navalny of parole violations relating to a suspended sentence he had been serving in a 2014 embezzlement case he calls trumped up.
“Today’s verdict against Alexey @navalny is a bitter blow against fundamental freedoms & the rule of law in #Russia. Already in 2017, the #ECHR criticized criminal prosecution in this case as arbitrary. Alexey #Navalny must be released immediately,” German Foreign Minister Heikko Maas said in a tweet.
‘Vladimir The Underpants Poisoner’
In a statement to the court earlier in the day, Navalny mocked Putin — whom he accuses of being behind a poison attack that almost killed him — repeatedly while stressing the aim of the hearing was to try and intimidate anyone who stood up to the Kremlin.
“Everyone was convinced that he’s just a bureaucrat who was accidentally appointed to his position. He’s never participated in any debates. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. We all remember Aleksandr the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” Navalny said in his address to the court, referring to how his attackers allegedly laced his underwear with a military-grade nerve agent to poison him.
Unlike other times when he appeared via video link from a pretrial detention center, Navalny was present in court as he outlined how the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his 2014 conviction was unlawful, adding that Russian officials had admitted as much by paying him compensation in line with the ruling.
“The main thing in this whole trial isn’t what happens to me. Locking me up isn’t difficult. What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions,” Navalny, wearing a blue hoodie, said as he faced the court in a glass-enclosed holding cell.
“Everything I’m saying now reflects my attitude toward the performance you’ve staged here. This is what happened when lawlessness and tyranny become the essence of a political system, and it’s horrifying,” he added.
Navalny’s detention and growing public anger over perceptions of rampant corruption and deteriorating living conditions has spurred tens of thousands to protest across the country the past two weekends.
Police have responded with a sometimes violent crackdown, detaining some 10,000 people. Many of Navalny’s close associates and his wife, Yulia, have been either detained, fined, or ordered under house arrest.
Expecting more of the same, police were out in force ahead of the hearing at the Moscow City Court. Surrounding streets were closed, and many police were deployed around the court complex equipped with riot gear. Police buses also lined nearby streets.
Before proceedings began, Navalny praised Yulia, his wife, who was present after being fined the previous day for taking part in a protest to demand his release.
“They said that you had seriously violated public order and were a bad girl. I’m proud of you,” Navalny said via a microphone from his glass-walled holding cell.
At the hearing, the FSIN repeated its request for the court to convert that suspended sentence into a real jail term of up to 3 1/2 years.
An FSIN representative told the court that Navalny had violated public order many times since being handed the original suspended sentence, which ended last month, and that he had systematically failed to report in to register.
Navalny said he was unable to report to the prison service at the end of last year because he was recovering in Germany where he was flown in an air ambulance after being poisoned in Siberia. The FSIN said its complaints predated his poisoning and that Navalny had in any case been well enough to meet journalists after being discharged from a Berlin hospital in September 2020.
Navalny told the court that the whole country knew he had been poisoned and was in Germany at the end of last year.
“On what grounds are you saying you didn’t know where I was? You’re misleading the court,” he told the FSIN official, who told Navalny he should have got in touch to formally inform the service of his circumstances.
As the hearing proceeded, the Kremlin accused Western diplomats of trying to influence the court.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted cars with diplomatic license plates were seen near the court, warning “diplomats mustn’t resort to actions that may be associated with attempts to pressure the court.”
It was not clear whether any diplomats were actually inside the courtroom where the hearing was taking place on February 2.
The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.
“Sweden and the EU are concerned about the situation with democracy, civil society, and human rights in Russia,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.
The diplomat said Navalny’s poisoning and the response by Russian authorities to the street protests will be part of the discussion.
Peskov said that 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,” he said in a conference call with reporters on February 2.
The Kremlin has dismissed extensive evidence that state agents poisoned Navalny and has rejected international calls for his release.
Prosecutors claim Navalny broke the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence in an embezzlement case for not checking in while receiving life-saving treatment in Germany.
The European Court for Human Rights has already ruled the so-called Yves Rocher fraud case was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”
In a television interview aired on February 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply disturbed by the violent crackdown” and that the U.S. administration was considering a response to Navalny’s detention as well as other issues of concern.
Blinken did not commit to specific sanctions against Moscow.
EU officials have said they were waiting to respond — including more comprehensive sanctions — pending the outcome of the Navalny’s hearing.
EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell is expected in Moscow from February 4-6 to meet with top Russian officials and civil society.
Navalny’s detention and poisoning is expected to be high on the agenda.