Jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny returned to court on Friday to face trial over a slander charge, amid a chorus of calls from Western capitals for his release and talks between the European Union’s top diplomat and Russia’s foreign minister.
Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was jailed on Tuesday for almost three years over alleged parole violations of a suspended sentence linked to a 2014 embezzlement case, which he has said was politically motivated.
He appeared in court again on Friday morning to face charges he slandered a World War II veteran who took part in a promotional video backing last year’s reforms that allow Putin run for two more terms in the Kremlin after 2024 if he wants.
Navalny described the people in the video as traitors without a conscience and as corrupt lackeys.
Though the charge is currently punishable by up to two years in jail, he cannot face a custodial sentence because the alleged crime was committed before the law was changed to make it a jailable offence, according to the 44-year-old’s lawyer.
Navalny said last year the case was part of an unrelenting campaign to stifle his political campaign against the Kremlin.
Navalny’s hearing came as Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, met Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the capital, Moscow.
Despite close trade ties and energy interdependence, Russia’s political relations with the EU have plunged to post-Cold War lows since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
During the talks, Borrell said: “Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment”, describing ties between the two parties as being “under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point”.
“There are issues in which we can and must work together,” Borrell told reporters at a press conference with Lavrov, who said that, “both sides have confirmed their interest in maintaining and expanding channels of dialogue, including on issues on which our positions differ.”
Lavrov meanwhile said Russia considers the European Union to be an unreliable partner.
Lavrov was commenting on the possibility of EU sanctions against Moscow over its treatment of Navalny.
Lavrov said the question of possible sanctions was an internal matter for the EU, but said Russia had noticed how Brussels was increasingly behaving like the United States and imposing unilateral restrictions on countries.
“For Russia, the EU is an unreliable partner,” Lavrov said.
Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Gofroid, reporting from Moscow, said the meeting was an attempt to find new channels of communication.
“Both Borrell and Lavrov agreed that the relations are very bad at this point,” she said.
“Still, both ministers said there are options for cooperation, and as Borrell put it, ‘a wall of silence is not one of them.’”
Thousands arrested over protests
Navalny’s jailing has prompted condemnation from the EU and several Western nations, with calls for sanctions on Russia growing in Europe.
Moscow has so far brushed off the foreign criticism of its handling of Navalny’s case as external interference, accusing the West of hysteria and double standards.
The Kremlin has also said recent protests over Navalny’s arrest which saw tens of thousands take to the streets in towns and cities across Russia were broken up by police because they were illegal.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested for taking part in the demonstrations, according to protest-monitoring group OVD-Info.
Navalny was initially arrested on January 17 upon returning to Russia from the German capital, Berlin, where he spent five months recovering from an alleged nerve-agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
The Kremlin denies involvement in the August 2020 incident and says it has seen no evidence Navalny was poisoned.