A Russian court ruled to send anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny to jail for 2.8 years at a closely watched hearing in Moscow on February 2, for breaking the parole terms of a suspended sentence that was imposed in 2014.
The judge accepted all the arguments put forward by the prosecutor and ruled that Navalny had broken his parole terms neither attending dozens of meetings with his parole officer nor informing the authorities of his whereabouts last year.
The judge transmuted a suspended 3.5-year sentence from 2014 in the so-called Yves Rocher fraud case, where Navalny and his brother Oleg were convicted on fraud charges, into real jail time. Navalny claims the case was politically motivated and denies any wrongdoing.
Navalny lawyers argued that the court could only imprison him for 2.6 years, as Navalny had already spent a year under house arrest in 2014 as part of the initial sentence.
Immediately after the ruling, Navalny’s supporters immediately called for further large-scale protests that have already 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.
"Today’s verdict against Alexey @navalny is a bitter blow against fundamental freedoms & the rule of law in #Russia. Already in 2017, the #ECHR criticised criminal prosecution in this case as arbitrary. Alexey #Navalny must be released immediately,” German Foreign Minister Heikko Maas said in a tweet.
Navalny lashed out at the judge and highlighted the arbitrary nature of the charges against him, emphasising at the same time that he had attempted to co-operate and had made every effort to inform the prison service of where he was and why he had missed his appointments.
“On what grounds are you saying you didn’t know where I was? The whole country knew where I was. You’re misleading the court,” he told the prison service official, who told Navalny he should have got in touch to formally inform the service of his circumstances.
Navalny fell violently ill on a plane on the way back to Moscow from a business trip to Siberia last August and his plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Omsk. He was taken from the plane unconscious and was hospitalised, suspected of poisoning, and fell into a coma. Three days later he was medevac’d to Berlin, where he spent the next five months recovering.
Navalny claims he informed the authorities of his medical condition in Germany and why he was unable to keep his appointment in December, communications the authorities deny receiving.
“Tell me how I could have complied with your requirements any better? I was in coma then in intensive care. Then I sent you a letter. You had my address and telephone number,” Navalny told the judge.
“You should have sent letter with explanation of circumstances,” the judge replied.
“CO—MA” Navalny shot back.
Navalny was held inside a glass cage in the courtroom and briefly talked to his wife Yulia before proceedings began.
“They said that you had seriously violated public order and were a bad girl. I’m proud of you,” Navalny told her. Navalnaya attended the weekend protests where she was briefly arrested and fined for participating in an unauthorised rally.
Navalny’s brother Oleg was also sentenced in the Yves Rocher fraud case and served 3.5 years in jail.
Addressing the court, Navalny gave a short speech to the courtroom that was packed with journalists and 13 diplomats from all the major EU countries.
Navalny pointed out that as a member of the Council of Europe the European Court of Human Rights is “part of the Russian legal system and its decisions are binding,” Navalny told the court. “I have already been exonerated in this case. I spent an entire year under house arrest for this same case.” The ECHR has already ruled that Navalny’s constant arrests by the authorities are politically motivated.
Navalny asked why was he still being prosecuted for a decision made in 2014 to impose a sentence of 3.5 years today in 2021?
“The explanation is one man’s hatred and fear – one man hiding in a bunker. I mortally offended him by surviving. I survived thanks to good people, thanks to pilots and doctors. And then I committed an even more serious offence: I didn’t run and hide,” Navalny said invoking his new nickname for Putin as the “old man in the bunker” that has given rise to numerous memes on Russia’s social media.
Navalny claims that Putin was behind the orders to kill him in Siberia and participated in an extensive investigation together with Bellingcat, The Insider, CNN and Der Spiegel that produced convincing evidence.
“I participated in the investigation of my own poisoning, and we proved that Putin, in fact, was responsible for this attempted murder. And that’s driving this thieving little man in his bunker out of his mind. He’s simply going insane as a result,” Navalny said.
In comments, as much designed for the Russian audience as the judge and diplomats, Navalny drove home his rhetorical flèche, saying Putin will be remembered in history as “Vladimir the Poisoner,” who “only knows how to fight by using murder.”
While Navalny is a well-known anti-corruption activist, he is much less trusted as a politician. Russians have come out to protest not because they support Navalny per se, but because they don't like the state’s arbitrary use of the justice system – a theme Navalny has been careful to nurture.
“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,” Navalny said. “I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. This isn’t a demonstration of strength – it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people.”
He concluded by pointing to the super-wealthy businessmen that surround Putin while in Russia’s markets the government has proposed introducing price controls because the cost of food has been rising so fast in recent months. He called again for Russians to take a stand and continue to protest.
Conveys of police buses arrived early in the day at courthouse in the suburbs of Moscow and the street was closed to traffic and pedestrians well ahead of the start of the hearing.
370 would-be protesters had been arrested by the time the sentence was read at 9pm local time, with some being detained as they emerged from the metro stations.
“I want to say that there are many good things in Russia now. The very best are the people who aren’t afraid – people who don’t look the other way, who will never hand our country over to the officials who want to trade it for palaces and aqua-discos,” Navalny concluded. “I demand my immediate release and the release of all political prisoners. This [court’s] performance is illegal.”
Kremlin and the international reaction
Kremlin Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin was not following the Navalny court case during the day. He added that he hoped EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrel’s visit to Russia on February 4 would not end in threats.
“I hope there won’t be something as silly as tying Russia-EU relations to the case of this detention centre inhabitant,” Peskov said.
Peskov was likely making reference to the president of Ukraine’s former Prime Minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych on trumped up charges. In that case, the EU linked aid to Ukraine to Tymoshenko’s plight and insisted that she be released before aid was given.
Part of the EU’s hesitation to vigorously condemn the arrest of Navalny may be a result of the bad taste left in diplomats' mouths’ following the Tymoshenko affair. One of the first things that happened after Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 was Tymoshenko was released and addressed the crowds on Maidan from a wheelchair. However, while demonstrators were happy that she had been released, Tymoshenko was quickly dismissed as a relic of the old system and has largely failed to regain her former position at the head of Ukrainian domestic politics. The EU diplomats bne IntelliNews has spoken to say they have been left with a feeling that they backed the wrong horse.
The EU has similar reservations about Navalny. While he has energised the Russian population, who have come out in force in the recent anti-government demonstrations, as commentator Mark Galeotti pointed out in his column in bne IntelliNews this week, the driving force is the general dissatisfaction amongst what he dubbed the “KoZa” or the “Coalition of the Fed Up” that is what is driving the protests.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova continued in the same vein as diplomats from over a dozen European embassies all registered to attend the court session.
Zakharova warned that the diplomat’s presence was “not just meddling... exposes the mean and illegal role of the collective West in attempts to restrain Russia. Or is it an attempt to put psychological pressure on the judge?”