US, Europe condemn Russia's imprisonment of Navalny as thousands protest near Kremlin

A Moscow court converted a suspended sentence that Alexey Navalny received into a prison term. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN - A Moscow court has sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny to two years and eight months in jail, drawing condemnation from Western leaders and calls for a halt to a disputed gas pipeline project.

The 44-year-old prominent Kremlin critic was jailed on Tuesday (Feb 2) for violating parole from a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement and money laundering.

He was accused of not meeting parole requirements such as reporting to Russian police in person, even though he was in a coma for several weeks last year after being poisoned by a nerve agent applied to his underwear.

Navalny was arrested on Jan 17 upon returning from a five-month-long treatment in Germany.

The court converted his 2014 suspended sentence into a prison term and reduced the 3.5 year sentence by 10 months - the time he had spent under house arrest.

Showing no sign of intimidation on Tuesday, Navalny lashed out at Russian President Vladimir Putin in his trademark sarcastic language.

"I mortally offended him by surviving. And then I committed an even more serious offence: I didn't run and hide," he said in court.

"I participated in the investigation of my own poisoning, and we proved, in fact, that Putin, using Russia's Federal Security Service, was responsible for this attempted murder."

After the court verdict on Tuesday, protests by opposition supporter erupted.

Trying to quell the street protests, Russian police again arrested scores of supporters of Navalny. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-info, more than 1,400 people were arrested.

There was also a wave of condemnation from European countries and the United States and calls for sanctions, including stopping the construction of the disputed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The pipeline, which links Germany and Russia, will double existing gas capacity. Proponents of the project argue that it will make energy supplies more secure and lower prices.

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But the project has long been controversial in the European Union, and the chorus of critics has swelled with the attempt on Navalny's life last year and his persecution by Russia's law enforcement.

Critics not only claim that the position of traditional gas transit countries like Ukraine will be weakened, but also argue that Mr Putin will change the hardline approach against opposition figures like Navalny only if countermeasures against Russia really hurt.

Ms Marieluise Beck, a leading politician of the German Greens, a potential coalition partner in Germany's new government later this year, demanded to stop the project worth around 10 billion euros. Protests will only have an impact if they hurt the Kremlin and President Putin, she said.

German chancellor Angela Merkel demanded the immediate release of Navalny and criticised the judge's decision as far removed from any rule of law.

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US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: "We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights."

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the court verdict "perverse". French President Emmanuel Macron declared that political dissent is never a crime.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said: "The dialogue between the European Union and Russia is now possible only in the language of sanctions."

The European Court of Human Rights in 2017 had already criticised the proceedings against Navalny as unjust and arbitrary.

The accusations date back to 2014 when Navalny and his brother Oleg were found guilty of embezzlement and laundering of funds. They had supposedly stolen money from two Russian companies associated with the French cosmetics brand Yves Rocher.

Oleg Navalny was jailed for 3.5 years, while Alexey Navalny was handed a 3.5-year probation sentence. They pleaded not guilty, calling the case politically motivated.

So far it is unclear how the imprisonment of Navalny will impact his anti-Putin movement. His lawyer Olga Mikhailova said she plans to appeal against the sentence.

However, it is unlikely that a court of appeal will be inclined to reduce the sentence, given the increasingly repressive nature of the Kremlin.

"He will either stay in prison longer or he will be released on the condition that he must leave the country completely," Dr Irina Soboleva, an expert on Mr Navalny's movement at North Carolina's Duke University, was quoted by the US news website as saying.

"In either case," she said, "the movement will be curtailed significantly."

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