Alexey Navalny knew it would likely be his last chance to address the public for a long time. So Russia’s most prominent opposition figure lobbed every barbed word he was allowed to speak in court at President Vladimir Putin, the man he blames for his imprisonment, his poisoning and what he sees as the decline of his country.
Standing in a glass-walled cell inside a Moscow courtroom, Mr. Navalny took aim Tuesday at the absurd nature of a legal system that has not investigated the August attempt on his life, which involved a nerve agent, but instead brought him to trial for violating the terms of a suspended sentence – for a 2014 conviction widely seen as trumped-up – when he was taken to Berlin in a coma for treatment.
“The explanation is one man’s hatred and fear – one man hiding in a bunker,” Mr. Navalny said in a clear reference to Mr. Putin, whom opposition supporters have taken to calling “the grandpa in the bunker.”
“I mortally offended him by surviving. … And then I committed an even more serious offence: I didn’t run and hide.”
His punishment was read out Tuesday by Judge Maria Repnikova in Moscow City Court: Mr. Navalny was found guilty of breaking the terms of his suspended sentence for economic crimes, and the remaining two years and eight months will now be converted to real jail time. In doing so, the judge ignored arguments from the defence team – who said he could not have been expected to make contact with his parole officers while he was in Germany receiving medical treatment – as well as a 2017 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found that the 2014 conviction was “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
Mr. Navalny’s legal team immediately said they would appeal the decision.
He knew he faced almost certain arrest when he decided to return to Russia on Jan. 17 – a decision that galvanized his supporters, who have staged massive nationwide protests over the past two weekends. Thousands have been arrested.
In his 15-minute speech before the verdict was announced, Mr. Navalny called on Russians not to be intimidated by his imprisonment or by the show of force by police on the streets. More than 500 people were arrested Tuesday for trying to protest outside the court.
“This isn’t a demonstration of strength – it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country,” Mr. Navalny said.
Dressed in a hooded blue sweatshirt, the 44-year-old alternated between displays of irritation and amusement with the proceedings. When a prosecutor told the court that Mr. Navalny should have maintained contact with prison authorities while he was in Germany, he became incredulous: “I was in a coma!” When the court recessed for lunch, Mr. Navalny jokingly asked if someone could bring him something from McDonald’s.
As the judge read out her verdict, Mr. Navalny drew a heart on the inside of his glass cage and smiled at his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who was in the courtroom as a spectator after being repeatedly detained during the recent protests. Earlier, he saluted her during a break in the proceedings: “Yulia, they keep showing you on my television. They say you are a persistent troublemaker. Bad girl. I love you.”
The Russian government repeated its claim that Mr. Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent recuperation had all been staged by Western governments. “As for the Navalny case, no information has been provided to us to prove accusations against the Russian authorities,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday. “We have reasons to believe that it’s a sham.”
The presence in Mr. Navalny’s bloodstream of Novichok, a class of nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, has been confirmed by laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, as well as by the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Last week the Kremlin said there was “no point” in sending an OPCW team to Russia to investigate the case.
The Foreign Ministry also criticized foreign governments for sending emissaries to attend Mr. Navalny’s court hearing. More than a dozen countries – including Canada, the United States and Britain – and the European Union had diplomatic representatives in the courtroom Tuesday.
Minutes after the verdict was announced, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a call for Russia “to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights.” Canada also condemned the decision. “Canada is appalled by the decision to imprison Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau wrote on Twitter. “We call on Russia to release those unjustly detained immediately, including peaceful protestors and journalists.”
An investigation by the Bellingcat website found that Mr. Navalny was trailed by a team of operatives from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – including poison and chemical weapon specialists – for at least three years before the August attack, beginning shortly after Mr. Navalny announced that he intended to challenge Mr. Putin for the presidency.
Pretending to be an aide to a Russian security official, Mr. Navalny subsequently made a recorded call to one of the alleged FSB agents named by Bellingcat. The person admitted to the attempt to kill Mr. Navalny, explaining that agents broke into his hotel room and applied the Novichok to the inside of his underwear.
Mr. Navalny used that touch of the absurd to take aim at something the long-ruling Mr. Putin is said to care deeply about: his place in Russia’s history books.
“He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. We all remember Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise,” Mr. Navalny said. “Well, now we have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner.”
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