US, EU slam Russia’s new sentencing of opposition leader Navalny

EU foreign policy chief decries extra nine years handed to Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny as ‘politically motivated’.

alexey navalny
A Russian court sentenced Alexey Navalny to nine additional years in a maximum-security prison on fraud and contempt of court charges [File: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters]

The United States and European Union have slammed a new sentence handed down to jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, calling it a “sham” and another example of Russia’s widening crackdown on dissenting voices amid its invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian court on Tuesday sentenced Navalny to nine additional years in a maximum-security prison on fraud and contempt of court charges, as well as a fine of 1.2 million roubles ($11,500).

“The court’s sham ruling is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

“This disturbing decision … is another example of the Russian government’s widening crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression, which is intended to hide the Kremlin’s brutal war, and unprovoked war against Ukraine.”

The EU also condemned the ruling as “politically motivated”.

“The European Union deplores the systematic crackdown on civil society, independent media, individual journalists and human rights defenders in Russia,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement. “We reiterate our call on the Russian authorities for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Amnesty International called the sentencing “predictable yet nonetheless shocking”.

“The world must not overlook this sentence and its significance amid the horrific human rights violations we have seen as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The new sentence comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Western nations, which have condemned and slapped a series of biting sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

It also follows a year-long crackdown by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Navalny’s supporters, other opposition activists and independent journalists in which authorities appear eager to stifle all dissent.

Navalny’s close associates have faced criminal charges and left the country, and his group’s political infrastructure — an anti-corruption foundation and a nationwide network of regional offices — has been destroyed after being labelled an extremist organisation.

Navalny is already serving two-and-a-half years in a penal colony east of Moscow for a parole violation. The new trial was held in a makeshift courtroom at the facility.

In a Facebook post by his team shortly after the sentence on Tuesday, Navalny said: “My space flight is taking a bit longer than expected.”

His new conviction is on charges of embezzling money that he and his foundation raised over the years and of insulting a judge during a previous trial. Navalny, who will appeal the ruling, has rejected the allegations as politically motivated.

Germany also denounced the verdict on Tuesday, with its Foreign Ministry calling it “part of the systematic instrumentalisation of the Russian judicial system against dissidents and the political opposition”.

Putin’s most vocal domestic critic, the 45-year-old survived an attempt to poison him with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, that he blames on the Kremlin. The Kremlin has said it had seen no evidence that Navalny was poisoned and denied any Russian involvement if he was.

Earlier this month, Navalny urged Russians to hold daily protests against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has decimated Ukrainian cities and forced more than 3.5 million people to flee the country.

“I am urging everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace,” he said in statements posted on Facebook and Twitter on March 2, urging people not to be afraid of going to prison. “If, to prevent war, we need to fill up the jails and police vans, we will fill up the jails and police vans.”

Thousands of people have been arrested in anti-war protests across Russia since the country launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Last week, Putin called for “self-purification” to rid Russia of anyone who opposes the war.

“[Russians] will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths,” he said in a speech that appeared to be a warning that his authoritarian rule could worsen. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies