A Moscow court sent Alexey Navalny to prison for more than two and a half years on Tuesday, closing a heated hearing in which the Russian opposition leader ridiculed claims he broke his parole conditions while recovering from poisoning, and denounced President Vladimir Putin as “Putin the poisoner.”
The decision inflamed anger among Navalny’s supporters. Vast crowds of people took to the streets in central Moscow following the sentencing and were met with a show of force, as hundreds of riot police combed the vicinity of the courthouse street by street and hustled protesters into waiting buses.
More than 1,000 people have been detained across Russia in connection to Tuesday’s protests, according to independent monitoring organization OVD-Info.
Navalny’s allies had already called for another round of nationwide demonstrations this weekend.
Navalny was detained two weeks ago upon his return to Moscow from Berlin, where he spent several months recovering from poisoning with nerve agent Novichok. He blames the attack on Russian security services and on President Vladimir Putin himself, accusations that the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
The court on Tuesday ruled that while Navalny was out of the country, he violated probation from a 2014 embezzlement case in which he had received a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence and five years of probation. Navalny describes the case politically motivated.
His suspended sentence will now be replaced with a prison term. The judge took into account the 11 months Navalny had already spent under house arrest as part of the decision.
He will appeal the verdict, according to his lawyer Olga Mikhailova. Speaking outside the courthouse after the sentencing, she said Navalny took the verdict “bravely as usual.”
His team in Moscow criticized the ruling as Putin’s “personal revenge, tweeting: “This is Vladimir Putin’s personal revenge. For investigating corruption. For having survived after poisoning. For exposing the FSB killers. For not being scared and returning to Russia.”
The verdict also sparked condemnation abroad. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken called on the Russian government to “immediately and unconditionally release” Navalny. The UK, Germany, France and others issued similar statements.
Navalny tears into Putin
As he listened to the judge read out a lengthy verdict, Navalny drew a heart on the glass box he was confined in for his wife, Yulia Navalnya, who was in the court room.
Earlier, he had ridiculed allegations that he could have better informed parole officers of his whereabouts while comatose to the objections of prosecutors and repeatedly being told by the judge to stop speaking.
When prison service representative asked why he had not provided documents to explain the serious reasons that prevented him from showing up for inspections, Navalny shot back: “Coma?”
“Why are you sitting here and telling the court you didn’t know where I was? I fell into a coma, then I was in the ICU, then in rehabilitation. I contacted my lawyer to send you a notice. You had the address, my contact details. What else could I have done to inform you?” he said.
Navalny’s defense lawyers argued the prison service was well aware of Navalyny’s whereabouts as it received a notice from him in early December. His lawyers also presented a letter from Berlin’s Charite Clinic showing that he was in rehabilitation up until his return to Russia.
“The President of our country said live on air he let me go to get treatment in Germany and you didn’t know that too?” Putin has said that he personally “gave the order” to let Navalny be medically evacuated to Germany.
In a separate outburst, Navalny described Putin as a “little thieving man in his bunker” who “doesn’t want me to set foot on the ground in Russia.”
“The reason for this is the hatred and fear of one person who is hiding in the bunker. I’ve offended him so deeply by the fact that I’ve survived,” Navalny charged.
When a prosecutor tried to object, Navalny snapped back: “I don’t need your objections.”
“He can pretend he is this big politician, the world leader, but now my main offense to him is that he will go down in history as Putin the Poisoner. There was Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise, and there will be Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” Navalny added.
“He is not engaging in geopolitics, he holds meetings on how to smear underwear with chemical weapons.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier that Putin was not planning on following Navalny’s hearing Tuesday, and was instead meeting with “teachers who are teaching the future generation of Russia.”
Navalny fell ill from exposure to military-grade Novichok during a trip to Siberia in August. A CNN-Bellingcat investigation in December implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning, piecing together how an elite unit at the agency trailed the activist and his team for years, including on the trip to Siberia.
Navalny also duped one of the agents into revealing that he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok applied to his underwear. The same nerve agent was used in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018, which, the British Government concluded, was carried out by Russian military intelligence officers and “almost certainly” approved by the Russian government.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement and Putin himself said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job. Reacting to the investigation at the time, Putin didn’t dispute any details of the findings but essentially confirmed that FSB agents did indeed trail Navalny.
A perennial thorn in Putin’s side, Navalny has been arrested and detained several times but had until now avoided lengthy sentences.
The case in which Navalny was sentenced on Tuesday dates back to 2014, when he and his brother Oleg were convicted of embezzling about $500,000 from two Russian firms between 2008 and 2012. One of the firms was affiliated with a French cosmetics company, Yves Rocher, and the investigation alleged that the Navalnys laundered part of the sum. Both were sentenced to three-and-a half years in prison, but Alexey’s sentence was suspended.
Navalny has insisted that the case is politically motivated. Under Russian law, convicted criminals are barred from running for political office.
In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the brothers were unfairly convicted in the case and that Russian courts handed down “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” decisions in the case.
Tuesday’s hearing opened under a heavy security presence, with riot police securing the court building and cordoning off the general area with police vehicles, trucks and vans. Nearby streets were open but closed to pedestrians and protesters with barricades.
CNN reporters witnessed police detaining dozens of people outside the court before the hearing had begun.
On Sunday, protesters across the country were met with the harshest show of force by Russian security services in years. More than 5,000 people were detained in at least 85 cities, according to OVD-Info, a record since 2011 protests. Navalny led mass protests in 2017-18 against Putin’s government.
Most of Navalny’s key allies and some family members have been detained or put under house arrest in recent weeks, feeding fears of growing political repression. Yulia Navalnaya has been arrested twice since she returned to Moscow with her husband. She was released Sunday soon after being detained that same day.
“Yulia, they show you on TV and keep talking about your radical behavior. Such a bad girl, I’m proud of you,” Navalny said shortly before his hearing began.