Russia jails Alexei Navalny for over two and a half years amid surge in protests

A Russian court jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Tuesday in a ruling which the opposition politician blamed on what he called President Vladimir Putin's hatred and fear of him.

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Russia jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny for about two years and eight months on Tuesday (Feb 2), ignoring Western calls to free him as President Vladimir Putin seeks to crush a resurgence in protests against his rule.

A Moscow court backed demands by penal authorities and prosecutors that Navalny, 44, serve time in prison instead of the suspended sentence he received for a 2014 fraud conviction, for alleged violations of his probation.

His 3 1/2-year sentence will be reduced by the 10 months he spent under house arrest in the case, the judge ruled.

Navalny was arrested in mid-January as he returned from Germany, where he recovered from a near-fatal attack involving a nerve agent applied to his underwear that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s security services. The Kremlin denies responsibility.

The prison term could isolate Navalny but risks escalating the confrontation between the authorities and opposition supporters.

“Someone didn’t want me to return to Russia a free man. We know who,” Navalny said in a defiant statement to the court, branding Putin “Vladimir the underpants poisoner.”

His comments drew objections from the prosecutor and a warning from the judge that “this isn’t a demonstration here.”

Some of the biggest crowds in recent years have joined unsanctioned protests nationwide since Navalny was detained. The unrest has already resulted in more than 9,000 detentions at rallies in dozens of cities in the last two weekends. His supporters called for new protests near the Kremlin Tuesday evening.

Russian police on Tuesday arrested more than 1,050 people in those protests, according to non-governmental organisation OVD-Info.

The organisation, which specialises in monitoring protests, said most of the arrests were in Moscow.

After the ruling Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated calls for Navalny’s immediate release. “We will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens,” he said.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter that the ruling was “pure cowardice and fails to meet the most basic standards of justice.”

While the Kremlin’s move to jail Putin’s most prominent critic aims to put a stop to his political activities, Navalny’s backers say he will become a powerful symbol of resistance behind bars.

“There are lots of Navalnys,” Ivan Zhdanov, director of the activist’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on TV Rain.

A major test will come when Russia holds parliamentary elections in September.

“The main point of this trial isn’t how it turns out for me – putting me in jail isn’t hard,” Navalny told the court from the glass defendant’s cage. “They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.” His lawyers vowed to appeal.

More pressure

In a separate case, Navalny also faces possible new fraud charges that could carry an additional 10-year punishment.

“This is a message to the security services that we’re firm and won’t give in,” said Alexei Makarkin, vice-president at the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.

“And it’s a message to the opposition: international notoriety and support don’t give you even minimal immunity.” Earlier Tuesday, riot police detained more than 350 protesters around the court, according to monitoring group OVD-Info.

“The opposition outside the system is seen by the Kremlin as a hostile force, a threat to national security, which requires harsh, merciless, repressive tactics against Navalny” and his allies, said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political consultancy R. Politik.

“This is only the beginning.” Navalny received the suspended sentence in a fraud trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher that also led to a 3 1/2 year jail term for his younger brother, Oleg. Both men denied wrongdoing, and the European Court of Human Rights has called the case politically motivated.

Defence attorneys cited that ruling and argued that Navalny was recuperating in Germany last year and couldn’t check in with probation authorities. The prison service contended that he had breached the terms of the sentence before going to Germany and asked for a 3 1/2 year prison term.

Putin, 68, has been in power since 2000, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In July, he pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to stay as President until 2036. Last year his support fell to a record low amid the Covid-19 downturn, and the continuing slide in incomes is weighing on the Russian leader’s popularity, pollsters say.

Navalny raised the focus on officials’ opulent lifestyles in a video released after his arrest that got more than 100 million views and alleged that Putin owns a giant US$1.3 billion (S$1.7 billion) Black Sea palace.

Putin dismissed the claim and a billionaire ally, Arkady Rotenberg, said last week that he is the beneficial owner of the residence.