Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny faces immediate arrest once he returns to Russia, the country’s prison service has warned, claiming it was “obliged” to detain him.
Navalny, who has been convalescing in Germany following an alleged nerve agent poisoning in August that he blames on Russian authorities, said on Wednesday he plans to fly back home on Sunday.
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The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) said in a statement on Thursday it issued an arrest warrant for Navalny in late December.
Then, the FSIN had warned Navalny he faced time in prison if he failed to report to its office in line with the terms of a suspended sentence and probation he received for a 2014 conviction on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.
Navalny rejects those charges as politically motivated. The European Court for Human Rights had ruled his conviction was unlawful.
The prison service, which has asked a Moscow court to turn Navalny’s three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence into a real one, noted it is “obliged to take all the necessary action to detain Navalny pending the court’s ruling”.
In a parallel move late last year, Russia’s main investigative agency also opened a new criminal case against Navalny on charges of large-scale fraud related to his alleged mishandling of $5m in private donations to his Anti-Corruption Foundation and other organisations. Navalny has also dismissed those accusations as fabricated.
In recent days, Navalny has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of now trying to deter him from returning to the country with the threat of arrest.
Kremlin, Navalny at odds over August incident
In past years, Navalny has received numerous brief jail terms and he and his allies have accused Russian authorities of trying to scare him from returning ahead of parliamentary elections, due to be held in September.
The Kremlin has said Navalny is free to return to Russia at any time, like any other Russian citizen.
Announcing his plan to return on Instagram, the 44-year-old said he had almost fully recovered his health.
The August 20 incident saw Navalny collapse on board a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a hospital in the German capital, Berlin, two days later.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied playing any role in the August incident.
Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing the lack of evidence.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up.
The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.