Police detained prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on his arrival at a Moscow airport after he flew home to Russia from Germany for the first time since he was poisoned and almost died in August last year.
The move on Sunday, which could see Navalny jailed for three and a half years for allegedly flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence, is likely to set off a wave of Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
In a case that drew wide international attention, Navalny was poisoned last August by what German military tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent, a finding the Kremlin rejects.
Navalny’s plane from Berlin was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters who had gathered to greet him.
After Navalny said last week that he planned to return home, the Moscow prison service (FSIN) said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.
But the 44-year-old opposition politician laughed and joked with journalists on his plane, saying he did not believe he would be arrested.
In the event, he was swiftly detained when he showed his passport to border guards before formally entering Russia, Reuters witnesses said. His wife, Yulia, his spokeswoman, and his lawyer were allowed to enter the country.
FSIN said in a statement Navalny had been detained due to the alleged violations of his suspended prison sentence and would be held in custody until a court hearing later this month that will rule whether to convert his suspended sentence into a jail term.
Navalny, one of Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.
Navalny has said Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin has denied involvement, saying it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he was free to return to Russia.
Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Godfroid, reporting from Moscow, said Navalny had given a short statement just before passport control in which he said he was happy to return and that he was not afraid.
“This is the message that he actually wanted to give across to the Russian citizens and the public by deciding to come back to the country where he was poisoned, where he almost died and whose authorities are refusing to investigate this, saying there is no proof the crime against him has been committed,” she said.
European Union members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia called for the “imposition of restrictive measures” against Russia following Navalny’s arrest, Lithuania’s foreign affairs minister said in a tweet on Sunday.
“Detaining Alexei Navalny by the Russian authorities is completely unacceptable. We demand his immediate release,” said the minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis.
“EU should act swiftly and if he is not released, we need to consider imposition of restrictive measures in response to this blatant act,” he added.
France expressed “great concern” over Navalny’s arrest. A French foreign ministry spokeswoman said the country and its European partners are “following the situation with the utmost vigilance and call for his immediate release”.
Italy’s foreign minister also called Navalny’s arrest “a very serious matter”.
L’arresto di Navalny al suo arrivo in Russia è un fatto molto grave, che ci preoccupa. Ne chiediamo l’immediato rilascio. E ci aspettiamo che siano rispettati i suoi diritti.
— Luigi Di Maio (@luigidimaio) January 17, 2021
“We ask for his immediate release. And we expect his rights to be respected,” Luigi Di Maio tweeted.
European Council President Charles Michel criticised the arrest, calling it “unacceptable”.
“I call on Russian authorities to immediately release him.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, also urged his release.
“The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, said on Sunday the United States “strongly” condemned the arrest.
“We note with grave concern that his detention is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Navalny’s plane was scheduled to arrive at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, but was diverted to land at the city’s Sheremetyevo airport instead. The flight was operated by Russian airline Pobeda, owned by state-controlled Aeroflot.
His supporters gathered at Vnukovo despite a forecast of bitterly cold minus 22 Celsius and more than 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.
Godfroid, reporting for Al Jazeera, said there was a heavy security presence at the airport, as well as a number of prison vans, and that police had cleared people without tickets to travel from the airport terminal.
OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said police had detained 53 people in Moscow and five in St Petersburg.
“[Navalny’s] decision to return, despite the threat of a long jail sentence, is seen here as a brave move and an explicit challenge to the authorities. It is also seen as a boost to the opposition,” Godfroid said.
Poisoning in August
Navalny fell into a coma while on board a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. He was evacuated from a hospital in Siberia to Berlin two days later.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany 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 a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
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, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up.
The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, enduring successive rounds of repression directed at the opposition.
A lawyer by training, he began his rise to prominence by focusing on corruption in Russia’s murky mix of politics and business.
In 2013, he came second in the race for Moscow mayor behind the candidate of United Russia, the party that provides Putin’s power base, establishing him as a formidable force and a worry to the Kremlin.
He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he has described as politically motivated.
He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face and was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but that many suspected was poisoning.