Alexéi Navalni faces a crucial trial this Tuesday. The Russian prosecutor’s office has asked for a sentence of up to three years in prison for the opposition leader, as tension between the Kremlin and the activist’s supporters increases. Navalni, 44, is charged with repeatedly violating a suspended prison sentence for fraud, imposed in 2014, and the terms of probation for failing to appear for court reviews. The opponent, who was arrested just after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he recovered from a serious poisoning suffered this summer in Siberia, assures that the charges are yet another political persecution to silence him. The Moscow court where the anti-corruption activist appears and where his followers have been summoned has been surrounded by security forces.
The outrage at the new Navalni trial, who has been in custody for 30 days since January 18, has ignited the anti-Kremlin protests, which have rocked Russia for the past two weekends. On Sunday, the unprecedented police deployment in the main cities of Russia and the harsh police repression, however, did not manage to extinguish the demonstrations, which ended with more than 5,100 detainees throughout the country, some with notable violence, use of batons and electric guns.
The Russian government, which for years has tried to ignore the existence of the opponent, has defended the heavy-handed policy against protests, prohibited by the authorities. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has finished off that the police response on Sunday was “tough but legal” and assured that the protesters “should be treated with the full weight of the law.” “There were a lot of hooligans and instigators who behaved more or less aggressively towards law enforcement officers, which is unacceptable. Therefore, it is natural for the police to act and take action, “he commented on Monday. The Russian authorities have opened 18 criminal cases in 18 regions to participants in the protests, according to data from the specialized organization Agora.
Navalni, who has become known for his revelations of the corruption of Russia’s political and economic elite, has become the most visible critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to the judicial process on Tuesday, which may not have a verdict today, the dissident faces other serious charges of large-scale fraud that could carry a sentence of 10 years in prison.
The office of Russian Attorney General Igor Krasnov issued a statement on Monday defending Navalni’s prison sentence in Monday’s case. And it demands that the original sentence of three and a half years in prison that was suspended in 2014 be restored, as requested by the Moscow prison service, which already put Navalni on the list of people wanted for not appearing in the reviews noted when he was in Germany, where he was transferred in a coma in summer from Siberia. The Prison Service assures that it was impossible to know where he was. The jail request is a “legal and well-founded” measure, Krasnov said. “The prosecution intends to defend its position in the judicial hearing,” he stressed.
The fact that the case behind the charges against Navalni was declared “unfair and arbitrary” by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017, has further increased the unrest among Russian citizens. The Strasbourg-based court convicted Russia of violating the rights to a fair trial of Alexei Navalni and his brother, Oleg, also convicted in the same case of a fraud related to the Ives Rocher cosmetics company and in which they were accused of “not complying with the contractual obligations” that their company had with the French cosmetics giant. Strasbourg ruled that Russia should pay each of the Navalni brothers 10,000 euros for damages and reimburse their legal costs: 45,000 for Alexei Navalni and 18,000 for Oleg.
But the case remained there, in the refrigerator. At the end of last year he was resurrected and led to a new process against the opponent, who is accumulating charges that can separate him not only from politics but also from the streets. The prosecution asks that he serve his sentence in a penal colony (a prison where they also work).
The European Union and the United States have criticized Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protests and have demanded that he release Navalni, whose main allies have also been prosecuted and are under house arrest, incommunicado. On Monday, on the eve of the visit to Moscow of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, Martina Fietz, the deputy spokesperson for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called for an end to “disproportionate actions against political protesters” and condemned the use of violence. “The detainees must be released immediately,” he claimed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also charged against the Russian reaction. “The arrests, the violence used by the police is deeply disturbing,” he said Sunday in an interview with MSNBC. The protests caused by the arrest of Navalni reflect “the frustration that the Russian people have with corruption, with the autocracy,” he said.