A closed-door trial of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has started inside a penal colony outside Moscow, a hearing that is being slammed by human rights organisations as a “sham”.
A video link showed Navalny in a prison uniform inside Pokrov’s maximum security prison on Tuesday, an AFP news agency journalist reported.
It showed him embracing his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, while guards stood on either side.
Navalnaya had demanded access to the closed-door proceedings a day earlier and said the new case is “so pathetic they are afraid to hold the trial in Moscow”.
The event comes as Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and the most vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, is currently serving a two and a half year sentence on old fraud charges – which the European Court of Human Rights described as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
The current hearing refers to new charges against the opposition leader that were launched in December 2020 as the 45-year-old was recovering in Germany after having narrowly survived a nerve agent poisoning.
Navalny accused the Russian government of being behind the attack – allegations that the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
Investigators are now accusing Navalny of stealing for personal use more than $4.8m of public donations directed to organisations he founded.
If found guilty, his sentence could extend up to 10 years.
Amnesty International described the hearing as a “sham trial, attended by prison guards rather than the media”.
“It’s obvious that the Russian authorities intend to ensure that Navalny doesn’t leave prison any time soon,” it said in a statement published on Monday.
The trial comes amid increasing tension over Russia’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine.
Amid a flurry of talks and intense diplomacy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to defuse tensions.
Navalny’s supporters have called on the German leader to bring up the fate of the politician in his talks with Putin.
“Germany stands for peace and justice,” Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter.
“And now its stance on this is more important than ever. The trial directly in jail of the number one political prisoner says everything about the Putin regime and the prospects of negotiations with him.”
Maria Pevchikh, another key Navalny ally, suggested that the trial was “purposefully scheduled to coincide with the most tense week of the Ukrainian crisis”.
“They are planning to extend his sentence for another 15 years while everyone’s distracted with something bigger,” she said on Twitter.
Navalny also faces up to six months in prison for contempt of court during one of his hearings last year when he was jailed on old fraud charges.