Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the victim of a near-fatal poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent, has been sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in a prison colony for allegedly violating the terms of a 2016 suspended sentence for fraud.
Navalny’s colleagues called on supporters to gather in downtown Moscow later in the evening of February 2 to protest the Simonovsky District Court’s ruling. “The fight for Aleksei Navalny has only begun,” commented Ivan Zhdanov, director of the activist’s non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation.
WATCH: Live coverage of the protests against Navalny's sentence
The 44-year-old politician often listened to the ruling with a wry grin or smiled at and laughed with members of the audience. In an apparent message to his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, he drew a heart with his finger on the window of his holding cabin.
Arguing that politics, rather than the law, would determine the court’s ruling, political analysts and opposition politicians throughout the day had predicted such an outcome,
The court’s ruling was a given from the moment that Navalny was detained in Sheremetyevo International Airport upon his January 17 return to Russia, alleged Lev Schlossberg, head of the liberal Yabloko (Apple) Party’s Pskov office.
“This [ruling] was that plan that was already ready at that moment and precisely that plan was realized,” Schlossberg commented.
But others stressed that the hearing cannot have any positive results for the government.
“To let him go is to show weakness. To lock him up is to strengthen the protests,” said Alkhas Abgadzhava, who defends individuals prosecuted by the government. “Both decisions for the authorities are bad right now. Therefore, they will weigh what is less dangerous for them.”
“Navalny in prison is a constant pain and a constant irritation and a constant occasion for demonstrations,” agreed political analyst and columnist Fyodor Krasheninnikov. “But Navalny free is even worse” for the government, he wagered.
Navalny and his brother, Oleg Navalny, were convicted in 2014 for their delivery company allegedly not complying with a contract and causing substantial financial damages to French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. Oleg Navalny served 3 ½ years in prison and was released in 2018. Aleksei Navalny was given a suspended sentence for 3 ½ years.
Navalny’s sentence for the Yves Rocher case expired on December 30, 2020.
The Federal Penitentiary Service stated that, as of September 24, 2020, it was not aware of Navalny’s “actual location” – a violation of the terms of his suspended sentence.
At the time, the activist was living in or near Berlin, where he had been evacuated, comatose, from Russia for medical treatment after a near-fatal poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in late August 2020.
The Federal Penitentiary Service argued in court that Navalny had failed more than 60 times to register his location with its officers. Though in Germany he had traveled and worked out, the agency claimed that it had not known his exact residence. “It was assumed that Navalny will get on the path to correction [of these violations], but he didn’t do that,” the prosecution alleged.
In court on February 2, Navalny dismissed the charges as an attempt to silence him after the failure to kill him with Novichok in an attack he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Federal Security Service. President Putin has denied any government responsibility for the attack.
“The cause of all this is the hatred and fear of one person, living in a bunker,” Navalny postulated, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I inflicted a mortal insult just by having lived after they tried to kill me on his order.”
As a member of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, the Russian government, he added, is obliged to honor the 2017 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the case against him for embezzlement from Yves Rocher was fabricated for political reasons.
The fact that the Russian government in 2018 paid Navalny compensation as stipulated by the ECHR, is “a bit of a halfway” recognition of that ruling, he said.
The court’s ruling against Navalny was never thrown out, however. The February 2 sentence against him was reduced from a potential 3 1/2 years to compensate for time he spent under house arrest in 2014 in connection with the Yves Rocher case.
President Putin, who denies any government involvement in the poisoning, did not monitor coverage of Navalny’s hearing, according to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Instead, he allegedly chose to prepare for a meeting with teachers.
Former Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, now a Kremlin critic, asserted that the government appears to live “in a different world, on a flying island,” and has not assessed the actual significance of the nationwide unauthorized protests against Navalny’s imprisonment.
A prison sentence for the opposition activist, he contended, “will mean a radicalization of the opposition” and, “in some circles,” lead to a “revolutionary” frame of mind.
Russian law enforcement appeared to fear such a phenomenon on February 2 itself. Three hundred and seventy people had been detained in the vicinity of the Moscow City Court since morning, OVD-Info, a non-governmental watchdog that tracks law enforcement for “political persecutions,” reported as of 8:30 p.m., Moscow time.
As during the January 31 protests for Navalny’s release, these “absolutely illegal” detentions “look like actions under a state of emergency, which has not been declared,” charged political analyst Arkady Dubnov.
Individuals were detained at the exit from the nearby subway station Preobrazhenskaya Ploshchad and in front of the Moscow City Court. According to eyewitnesses, police exclusively targeted young people – an age group that appears to make up much of Navalny’s popular support.
As on January 31, many of the detentions appeared arbitrary. Detainees told Current Time that they did not know why they were detained or who exactly was detaining them.
A befuddled detained employee from the majority-state-owned power company Rosseti commented that his colleague and he had been simply working in the area.
Several journalists from non-mainstream news and information outlets (Open Media, Rosdzerzhava, Mash, Sota Vision, and Avtozak LIVE) were also detained for unclear reasons. The two correspondents from Mash were later released.
The pile-up of helmeted riot police around the courthouse, the multiple police vans and “special equipment,” the restriction of pedestrian traffic in the area was unprecedented, commentators interviewed by Current Time stated.
Separate vehicles manned a satellite dish and trained cameras on the areas in front of the courthouse. By early evening, a few street-cleaning trucks also had joined the assembled vehicles on the road by which any police van would take Navalny away from the courthouse.
The show of force seemed unnecessary to interviewed passers-by.
“He’s not a maniac, some kind of killer. Why so many vehicles, so many people?” asked one local young man, who had to show his passport to walk his dog in the courthouse’s neighborhood.
Such pedestrians mostly condemned the hearing.
“It’s a political case. It’s absolutely obvious,” commented one young woman, citing the lack of an official investigation into Navalny’s poisoning and his prosecution upon returning to Russia from treatment in Germany. “It’s complete nonsense. It has no connection with justice.”
Speculation has focused on why the hearing was changed from Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court to the larger Moscow City Court. Easier access for media was initially cited as a reason, but, in the end, dozens of the 200 journalists accredited for the hearing were denied access. Photography and filming within the courtroom were banned.
Some observers have focused on the January 28 resignation of the chairman of the Simonovsky District Court, Vyacheslav Detishin, to explain the change of venue. The Court’s press service denied that Judge Detishin's resignation, originally planned for March 1, was linked to Navalny’s case, however.
With a verdict now in, pressure likely will mount for further international sanctions against Russia, observers believe. Multiple countries and the European Union have called for Navalny’s release to no effect.
In remarks to Current Time, European Parliament Deputy Sergei Lagodinsky, who represents Germany in the EU legislature, commented that the ruling, though not a surprise, appeared to signal a "farewell by the Russian government to the hope for any kind of democratic future for its country."
Representatives from 13 embassies and the EU attended the hearing at the Moscow City Court to monitor the proceedings.
Both presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took issue with their presence. The two speculated that their presence could be interpreted as an attempt to place “psychological pressure” on the court.
“Of course, not in any way should they interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs, much less permit any kind of actions at all that could even somehow be associated with attempts to put pressure on an independent court,” commented Peskov.
Zakharova, speaking on Facebook, observed, incorrectly, that diplomats usually are in foreign courts only to support their own citizens. “Even if Westerners consider Navalny as their own, he is a citizen of the Russian Federation,” she said.
Navalny’s defense team is expected to appeal the sentence, but that process could take months, commented human-rights activist Olga Romanova.
Meanwhile, incarceration within a general-security prison colony “will increase the danger for his health and life because in a [prison] colony … it’s very easy to get rid of whomever you please,” Romanova claimed.
Aside from the Yves Rocher case, two other trials await Navalny.
On December 29, 2020, one day before the expiration of his sentence in the Yves Rocher case, the state charged Navalny with large-scale fraud for supposedly using 356 million rubles ($4.84 million) out of 588 million rubles ($8 million) in donations to his non-profit organizations for personal expenses. That charge can be punished by a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
In June 2020, a slander case was filed against Navalny for tweeting that a World War II veteran and other participants in a video promoting Putin’s 2020 constitutional reforms were “corrupt lackeys” and “traitors.” The potential punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,802) or up to 160 hours of compulsory labor.
Political analysts and rights activists interviewed by Current Time have dismissed these cases as politically motivated as well.