Tuesday. 21.05.2024

Russia's leading dissident, Alexei Navalny, is facing three years and six months in prison after a court ruled on Tuesday that he violated his probation when he failed to check in with authorities while recovering from a poisoning attack in Germany.

Navalny has been on probation since 2014 in the fraud case, which he has long condemned as political and the European Court of Human Rights said involved "arbitrary and unfair" proceedings. But Russia insists that the terms of the probation apply, regardless of other factors.

"The court has ruled to satisfy the motion of the Federal Penitentiary Service," said judge Natalya Repnikova as she announced the decision, in comments carried by TASS.

But Navalny has argued that there was no way he could have followed the rules, noting that he was comatose at the time he was taken to Germany.

"I was in Germany, undergoing treatment," Navalny said in court before the verdict was read.

Furthermore, Navalny says the September poisoning - which involved the nerve agent Novichok applied to his underpants while he was in the country's east campaigning for opposition candidates - was undertaken by the government.

Moscow has disputed this, even questioning the facts of the poisoning, although multiple independent labs have confirmed the presence of Novichok. Novichok has been used in at least one other attempted murder linked to the Kremlin.

After months of recuperation in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia earlier this month, even though Moscow made clear he would be detained upon arrival. Since his detention, the country has endured two weekends of mass protests and arrests. More detentions came on Tuesday outside the courthouse.

'Vladimir the poisoner'

Navalny used the proceedings to once again pin the attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the Kremlin leader will go down in history as "Vladimir, the underpants poisoner."

Navalny said the attack was orchestrated by Putin and that an FSB domestic intelligence agency "hit squad" planted the Novichok in his underpants.

"We have proven that Putin committed this attempted murder," Navalny said, and now "this little thieving person in his bunker" is going crazy because he had survived. Putin and the FSB deny involvement.

Navalny said Putin had never engaged in politics and "his only instrument of struggle is killing." The dissident demanded the release of all political prisoners and called for his supporters not to be afraid. "It's not hard to imprison me," Navalny said. "But a whole country cannot be imprisoned."

Putin has been in power for more than two decades, alternating between the presidency and the prime minister's job. His rule has been characterized by increasing wealth in the country, but also by ever-increasing restrictions on free speech, the media and political opponents.

Aside from the jail time, prosecutors requested a fine of 500,000 roubles (6,588 dollars) against Navalny. It was not clear how the court decided on this point.

Detentions outside the court

As the hearing progressed, at least 120 detentions were reported among Navalny supporters outside the court.

A reporter at the scene described apparently random arrests and violence outside the courthouse and on nearby streets.

The police presence outside the building was strong, with members of the OMON anti-terrorist units prominent. Steel barricades and other barriers were set up to keep out protesters supporting Navalny.

Navalny's wife, Julia Navalnya, managed to enter the courthouse, walking past multiple prison transports on standby outside.

The trial has been criticized as politically motivated, and many experts see it as a new attempt to silence Putin's main political opponent.

The Kremlin on Tuesday sharply rejected criticism of the trial.

Russia would not accept "admonitions" by the European Union, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said according to news agency Interfax.

The presence of several diplomats at the trial in Moscow constituted an interference with Russia's internal affairs, Maria Zakharova, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, wrote on Facebook.

The EU, Germany and the United States, among others, have repeatedly called for Navalny's release.

Navalny gets jail time as Russian court rules he violated probation