Russian court jails Putin critic Alexei Navalny despite outcry

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A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered the Kremlin’s most prominent critic Alexei Navalny jailed for nearly three years, triggering immediate calls for protests in Russia and condemnation in the West.

The decision to turn a 2014 suspended sentence into real jail time will see Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner who accuses the Kremlin of poisoning him last year, serve a lengthy prison term for the first time.

His team called for supporters to head to central Moscow to demonstrate, as Britain, France, Germany and the United States denounced the ruling and demanded Navalny’s immediate release.

After thousands joined nationwide protests against Navalny’s arrest over the last two weekends, the case is presenting one of the most serious challenges to the Kremlin in years, with some in the West calling for new sanctions against Russian authorities.

Judge Natalya Repnikova ordered a suspended 3½-year sentence Navalny received on fraud charges in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony.

Repnikova said time Navalny previously spent under house arrest in the sentence would count as time served.

His lawyer Olga Mikhailova told journalists outside the court that this meant he would now serve around two years and eight months in prison. His legal team planned to appeal, she said.

‘Poisoner of underpants’

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund immediately called for a protest in central Moscow.

“We’re going to the center of Moscow right now,” it wrote on Twitter, urging supporters to join them.

In a fiery courtroom speech ahead of the ruling, Navalny accused Putin of trying to intimidate his critics and mocked the Russian leader over allegations the Novichok nerve agent used to poison him had been placed in his underwear.

“They are putting one person behind bars to scare millions,” Navalny said.

While Putin wanted to be seen as a great statesman, Navalny said, the Russian leader instead “will go down in history as a poisoner of underpants.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Russia to “immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny,” warning that Washington and its allies would “hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens.”

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Political disagreement is never a crime. We call for his immediate release. Respect for human rights and democratic freedom are non-negotiable.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also urged Russia to release Navalny, calling the ruling “perverse,” while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter that the decision was “a bitter blow against fundamental freedoms & the rule of law in Russia.”

Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport on Jan. 17 when he returned from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from the August poisoning.

He was charged with violating the terms of his parole under the 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges because he did not check in with the prison service while in Germany.

The European Court of Human Rights in 2017 condemned the initial ruling in the fraud case as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.

Arrests in Moscow

After Navalny’s team called for protesters to head to a rally at a central square near the Kremlin, Moscow officials closed four metro stations around the presidency.

Journalists saw dozens of police clad in riot gear enter the square and at least 15 people detained.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities over the last two weekends to call for Navalny’s release, prompting a massive police clampdown that saw several thousand people arrested.

Police detained more protesters outside the courtroom on Tuesday, with OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests and opposition protests, saying more than 300 people including journalists had been detained.

Russian security forces mounted a massive operation during the most recent protest on Sunday, blocking off parts of central Moscow and detaining more than 5,400 people across the country.

Anti-corruption investigations

While he has never held elected office, Navalny has made a name for himself with anti-graft investigations exposing the wealthy lifestyles of Russia’s elite.

Two days after he was placed in pre-trial custody last month, his team released an investigation into an opulent seaside property Navalny claims was given to Putin through a billion-dollar scheme financed by close associates who head state companies.

The probe was published alongside a YouTube video report that has garnered more than 100 million views.

Putin denied owning the property and last week a billionaire businessman close to the Russian leader, Arkady Rotenberg, said he was the owner and was turning it into a hotel.

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