Hundreds detained in protests as Kremlin critic Navalny jailed

The decision to jail the prominent Putin opponent is likely to spur further demonstrations and widen a rift between Russia and Western powers.

Navalny, pictured inside a glass cell during the court hearing in Moscow, was jailed for three and a half years although time he has already served under house arrest will reduce the term to two years and eight months [Handout/Moscow City Court press service via AFP]

Russian police detained hundreds of Alexey Navalny’s supporters during protests outside the court in Moscow that sentenced the Kremlin critic to almost three years in jail over alleged parole violations.

The Simonovsky District Court on Tuesday ruled that Navalny had violated the probation conditions of a suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction, which Navalny has said was politically motivated.

He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, a term that was shortened to two years and eight months by taking into account time already served under house arrest.

His lawyer said his team plans to appeal.

Russian police detained more than 900 people at protests in support of Navalny, the OVD-Info protest monitoring group said.

Riot police were deployed in large numbers outside the court after Navalny’s allies called on supporters to gather in support.

The court said that Navalny, who gained prominence with his exposes of corruption among Russia’s political elite, violated the terms of his probation when he was airlifted to Germany for treatment after being poisoned with a nerve agent.

The decision is likely to fuel more demonstrations in support of Navalny across the country and widen a rift between Russia and Western powers demanding the 44-year-old’s release.

Navalny was arrested on January 17 when he returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he spent five months recovering from an alleged poisoning that almost killed him. He blames the alleged attack on the Kremlin, an accusation Russian authorities have rejected.

Speaking from a glass cage in the courtroom during his hearing, Navalny attributed his arrest to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “fear and hatred”, saying the Russian leader would go down in history as a “poisoner”.

“I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt that he ordered,” he said.

“The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people,” Navalny said. “You can’t jail millions. You can’t jail the entire country.”

Police officers stand guard during the court hearing hearing in Moscow [Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo]

Navalny’s detention has sparked nationwide protests against Putin. Thousands of people were detained as tens of thousands defied a heavy police presence to fill the streets in towns and cities across Russia on Sunday for the second week running to demand the Kremlin critic’s release.

International calls for release

Western powers have meanwhile called on Russia to free Navalny, with some threatening fresh sanctions.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Navalny’s jailing as a violation of his rights and demanded his release.

“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” Blinken said in a statement.

Expressing “deep concern”, Blinken said Navalny was entitled to rights under the Russian constitution and said Moscow “has international obligations to respect equality before the law and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

Russian police detained hundreds of people in protests that took place around the hearing [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

In a statement on Twitter, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “The condemnation of Alexei Navalny is unacceptable. A political disagreement is never a crime. We call for his immediate release.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the court order as “perverse”.

“The UK calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexey Navalny,” Raab said in a statement. “Today’s perverse ruling, targeting the victim of a poisoning rather than those responsible, shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the ruling against Navalny a “bitter blow” to the rule of law in Russia.

“Alexey Navalny must be released immediately,” he wrote on Twitter, echoing a similar call by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Hitting back, Russia described calls by Western countries to free Navalny as “disconnected from reality”.

“There is no need to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was cited by Russian news agencies as saying.

People in Moscow and St Petersburg defied a heavy police presence to show their support for Navalny, who has emerged as the most prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The placard reads: ‘Mum, I don’t like the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN)’ [Anton Vaganov/Reuters]
A protester in Moscow is led away by riot police. Navalny’s jailing is expected to fuel more demonstrations [Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP]

Navalny emphasised that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his 2014 conviction was unlawful and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.

The Putin critic and his lawyers have argued that while he was recovering in Germany from the alleged poisoning attack, he could not register with Russian authorities in person as required under his probation.

Navalny also insisted that his due process rights were crudely violated during his arrest and described his jailing as a travesty of justice.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies