A Moscow court has sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to three and a half years in prison on charges that he violated the terms of his probation while he was recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning.
Navalny, who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, had earlier denounced the proceedings as a vain attempt by the Kremlin to scare millions of Russians into submission.
The prison sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has rejected as fabricated.
The 44-year-old Navalny was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from the attack, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement. Despite tests by several European labs, Russian authorities said they have no proof he was poisoned.
As the order was read, Navalny pointed to his wife Yulia in the courtroom and traced the outline of a heart on the glass cage where he was being held.
Earlier, Navalny attributed his arrest to Putin’s “fear and hatred,” saying the Russian leader will go down in history as a “poisoner.”
“I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt that he ordered,” he said.
“The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people,” Navalny said. “You can’t jail the entire country.”
Russia’s penitentiary service alleges that Navalny violated the probation conditions of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction that he has rejected as politically motivated. It asked the Simonovsky District Court to turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one that he must serve in prison, although he has spent some of that sentence under house arrest.
Navalny emphasized that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his 2014 conviction was unlawful and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.
Navalny and his lawyers have argued that while he was recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he couldn’t register with Russian authorities in person as required by his probation. Navalny also insisted that his due process rights were crudely violated during his arrest and described his jailing as a travesty of justice.
“I came back to Moscow after I completed the course of treatment,” Navalny said at Tuesday’s hearing. “What else could I have done?”
Navalny’s jailing has triggered massive protests across Russia for the past two weekends, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand his release and chant slogans against Putin. Police detained over 5,750 people Sunday, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the biggest number the nation has seen since Soviet times. Most were released after being handed a court summons, and they face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.
“I am fighting and will keep doing it even though I am now in the hands of people who love to put chemical weapons everywhere and no one would give three kopecks for my life,” Navalny said.
The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.
Russia has dismissed US and EU criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and said Navalny’s current situation is a procedural matter for the court, not an issue for the government.
More than a dozen Western diplomats attended the hearing, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said their presence was part of efforts by the West to contain Russia, adding that it could be an attempt to exert “psychological pressure” on the judge.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is ready for dialogue about Navalny, but sternly warned that it wouldn’t take Western criticism into account.
“We are ready to patiently explain everything, but we aren’t going to react to mentor-style statements or take them into account,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.