Kremlin Critic Navalny Faces Court Hearing, Could See 3.5 Years In Prison
Updated at 8:55 a.m. ET
A Moscow court is ruling on whether to send Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison for 3.5 years on an old fraud conviction that he calls politically motivated.
Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 immediately after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poison attack with a rare nerve agent that he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian authorities, who have denied any involvement in the August poisoning, pressured Navalny to remain in exile.
The prison service claimed Navalny had violated the terms of his 2014 parole by not checking in while he was undergoing treatment in Germany. Prosecutors want to turn the suspended sentence into real jailtime, even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that Navalny had been tried unfairly.
Navalny, who is being detained at Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, was led into the glass defendant's box that is typical for Russian courtrooms. Reporters were allowed to take pictures only before the hearing began, and Navalny, wearing a blue hoodie, could be seen communicating with his wife, Yuliya, and his lawyers.
"I very much hope that people won't see this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. It's not a show of strength but a show of weakness," Navalny told the court, according to a transcript by the news site Meduza. "They can't put millions and hundreds of thousands in jail."
"I salute all the honest people all over the country who are not afraid and take to the streets," he said.
Outside the court, riot police in full battle gear had secured a wide perimeter. Independent news outlets such as TV Rain broadcast live coverage of a passersby being arrested and bundled into police trucks.
Police used similar tactics at a protest in Moscow Sunday, arresting random demonstrators as they made their way through the city on a march demanding Navalny's release. Protests have broken out in dozens of Russian cities, from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
More than 5,600 people were detained in 90 cities during protests Sunday, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info, which tracks political persecution in Russia. In Moscow, where almost 1,900 people were arrested, there was not enough space in city jails and detainees were forced to sit for hours in crowded buses without food or water, OVD-Info reported.
"The Kremlin is waging a war on the human rights of people in Russia, stifling protesters' calls for freedom and change," Amnesty International said in a statement. "This is a desperate attempt to silence criticism, and it needs to stop." Amnesty has recognized Navalny as a "prisoner of conscience."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News that he was "deeply disturbed by the violent crackdown" and said Russians are frustrated with "corruption" and "autocracy."
Russia is facing new calls for sanctions among European Union countries, and the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, is expected to bring up Navalny's arrest on his official visit to Moscow later this week. Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has called on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on 35 individuals in Putin's inner circle.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, says Navalny's case is exclusively a domestic matter and that Russia will not take instructions from foreign governments. The Kremlin has suggested that Navalny works for U.S. intelligence and has branded the Anti-Corruption Foundation a "foreign agent."
Peskov told reporters that Putin is not following Navalny's hearing and is meeting with educators today.
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