Russian judge jails Kremlin foe Navalny for 30 days

Police seized Alexei Navalny less than an hour after he returned to Russia.
Police seized Alexei Navalny less than an hour after he returned to Russia.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG) - A Russian judge on Monday (Jan 18) ruled that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny should be held in custody for 30 days until Feb 15, his spokeswoman said, a day after he was detained upon his arrival in Moscow.

“The court arrested Navalny for 30 days. Until February 15,” Ms Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter.

The judge ordered Navalny, 44, held for 30 days for violating the terms of a suspended jail sentence. Another hearing is set for Jan 29 to rule on the alleged violation, which could see him imprisoned for as much as 3.5 years.

Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport on Sunday after flying home for the first time since he was poisoned last summer. The United Nations and Western nations told Russia to immediately free the opposition politician and some countries called for new sanctions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday decried Navalny's arrest and demanded his release.

Dr Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters that she “condemns” Navalny’s detention by police which “violates the principles of the rule of law”. He said Germany called on Russia “to release Navalny immediately”.

Police seized Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, at a border control post at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday.

Mr Seibert said Russia had arrested the “victim” of “attempted murder with chemical weapons” and “not the perpetrator”, adding that Navalny had been in Germany to receive medical treatment after the attack.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to accuse Mr Navalny of a violation of his parole over this time” he spent in Germany, Mr Seibert said, adding that Dr Merkel had “repeatedly” noted that Russia’s treatment of Navalny “weighed on” relations between Berlin and Moscow.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Russia to “immediately” release Navalny and ensure his safety, adding her voice to similar other calls from the US, Britain and other governments.

“Detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments,” she said in a statement on Monday, also calling for a “thorough and independent” investigation of his August nerve-agent poisoning.

Before the court hearing earlier in the day, Navalny said that he was facing a "mockery of justice".

He was brought into a makeshift courtroom set up at the police station in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow where he was taken following his detention on Sunday night.

Aides said Navalny was denied access to his lawyers and notified at the last minute of the hearing. His team released a video of an incredulous Mr Navalny at the hearing.

"I've seen a lot of mockery of justice... but they have ripped up and thrown away" Russia's criminal code, Navalny said. "This is impossible. It's ultimate lawlessness."

Police seized the 44-year-old, the most prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin, at a border control post at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport less than an hour after he returned to Russia, in defiance of warnings that he would be arrested.

Russia's FSIN prison service said it had detained him for violating the terms of a suspended sentence he was given in 2014, on fraud charges he says were politically motivated.

He is also facing potential new criminal charges under a probe launched late last year by Russian investigators who say he misappropriated over US$4 million (S$5.3 million) worth of donations.

Navalny emerged a decade ago as the leading critic of the Kremlin, with his Anti-Corruption Foundation publishing anti-graft investigations that often reveal the lavish lifestyles of the Russian elite.

'Totally incomprehensible'

He has repeatedly led large-scale street protests against Mr Putin, most recently in the summer of 2019, and was gearing up for another challenge to the authorities during elections to the lower house State Duma in September.

He was evacuated to Germany after falling violently ill on a flight over Siberia in August from what Western experts eventually concluded was a poisoning with Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok.

Navalny accused Mr Putin of ordering the attack, a claim the Kremlin vehemently denies. Russian police have not opened an investigation, citing a lack of evidence.

Navalny was poisoned with the same chemical said to have been used in the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in 2018.

Russia has rejected European and US calls for Navalny's release and hit back at their condemnation. 

Dismissing the criticism as “artificial and unjustified”, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States and its allies were just trying to distract from their domestic problems. 

“Everything that is happening with Navalny in connection with his return and arrest is a matter for law enforcement bodies,” he said. “This is purely a question of applying Russian laws.” 

He added: "It looks like Western politicians see this as an opportunity to divert attention from the deepest crisis the liberal development model has found itself in."

Russia frequently accuses the West of unfair criticism of its domestic policies pointing to divisions in Western countries like those that led to the storming of the US Capitol or the Yellow Vests protests in France.