Kremlin critic Navalny heads back to Russia, facing imminent arrest

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia on a plane at Berlin Brandenburg Airport before take-off yesterday. They were returning to Russia after he spent five months in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack. PHOTO: AGENCE FRAN
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia on a plane at Berlin Brandenburg Airport before take-off yesterday. They were returning to Russia after he spent five months in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • Chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took a flight back to Russia from Germany yesterday, facing imminent arrest after the authorities warned that they would detain him.

The 44-year-old opposition leader was flying back to Moscow after spending several months in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack that he said was carried out on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Navalny fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia last August and was flown out to Berlin by medical aircraft in an induced coma. Western experts concluded that he was poisoned with a Soviet-designed nerve toxin - Novichok.

The Kremlin denied involvement and Russian investigators said there were no grounds to launch a probe into the attack.

Berlin said last Saturday it had responded to requests for legal assistance from Moscow and handed over transcripts of an interview conducted by German police with Mr Navalny.

On the eve of his departure, Mr Navalny thanked the people in Germany, including doctors, police and politicians, whom he met during his five-month stay. "Thank you, friends!" he wrote in German in a post on Instagram.

Russia's prison service is now saying Mr Navalny may face jail time on arrival in Moscow for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence he was handed on fraud charges. The anti-graft campaigner may also face criminal charges under a probe launched by Russian investigators late last year. They say he misappropriated over US$4 million (S$5.3 million) worth of donations.

The expected move to imprison the most prominent opponent of the Russian President would mark an escalation in the Kremlin's steadily growing crackdown on opponents. Coming days before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office, it could trigger an immediate clash with the new Democratic administration.

More than 2,000 people said they were planning to go to Moscow's Vnukovo airport in a Facebook event despite temperatures in Moscow hovering around minus 20 deg C.

Videos shared on social media showed riot police already parked outside the airport.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2021, with the headline 'Kremlin critic Navalny heads back to Russia, facing imminent arrest'. Subscribe