A Russian court on Tuesday found top opposition leader Alexei Navalny guilty of fraud and contempt of court, and sentenced him to another nine years in prison in a move seen as an attempt to keep President Vladimir Putin’s biggest enemy behind bars for fraud. as long as possible.
The new ruling comes after a year-long crackdown by Putin of Navalny’s supporters, other opposition activists and independent journalists, as authorities appear eager to stifle all dissent.
Those close to Navalny faced criminal charges and left the country, and the political infrastructure of his group – an anti-corruption institution and a national network of regional offices – was destroyed after it was designated an extremist organization.
The 45-year-old Navalny, who in 2020 survived a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin, is already spending two and a half years in a criminal colony east of Moscow for violating his parole. The new trial was held in a makeshift courtroom at the facility.
In a Facebook post by his team shortly after the sentence, the usually cynical Navalny said: “My space flight is taking a little longer than expected.”
He added that neither he nor his comrades would “simply wait,” declaring that his anti-corruption institution would become an international organization “that will fight (Putin) until we win.”
“We will find all their Monaco mansions, their Miami villas, their fortunes everywhere – and when we do, we will take everything from the Russian criminal elite,” the foundation’s new website said.
His new conviction came for embezzlement of funds he had accumulated with his foundation over the years and for insulting a judge during a previous trial. Navalny, who will appeal the verdict, dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.
Germany condemned the ruling, and its foreign ministry described it as “part of the systematic exploitation of the Russian judicial system against dissidents and the political opposition.”
It was not immediately clear if or where Navalny would have to serve the new nine-year prison sentence plus two and a half years. Prosecutors originally requested a 13-year prison sentence. The judge also imposed a fine of 1.2 million rubles (about $11,500).
Navalny’s Twitter account responded to the nine-year prison sentence by citing the TV series “The Wire”: “Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series, The Wire, used to say, ‘You only do two days. This is the day you get in and the day you get out. I even wore a T-shirt with this logo on it, but the prison authorities confiscated it, considering the prints to be extremist.”
Even his lawyers, Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev, were arrested shortly after they commented to reporters about the verdict, although Mikhailova told the Medizona news website that the police had let them go without any charges being brought.
Navalny’s supporters criticized the decision to move the trial, which began about a month ago, to prison instead of taking it in Moscow. They said this effectively limited media and backers’ access to the proceedings.
He appeared at the hearings dressed in a prison uniform and gave several elaborate speeches, denouncing the charges against him as fictitious.
Navalny fell ill during a domestic flight in 2020 and was diagnosed with poisoning by the chemical nerve agent Novichok, although Russian officials have vehemently denied his accusations that they had any role. He was taken for treatment to Germany, where he recovered for five months.
He was arrested upon his return to Russia in January 2021, sparking the largest protests the country has seen in recent years. The following month, a Moscow court ordered him to be imprisoned for violating the terms of his conditional release from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that the European Court of Human Rights deemed “manifestly arbitrary and unreasonable.”
The authorities then launched a sweeping crackdown on his organization, associates and supporters. Last month, Russian officials and several of his colleagues added him to the state registry, which labeled them extremists and terrorists.
Several criminal cases were brought against Navalny individually, leading his aides to suggest that the Kremlin intends to keep him behind bars indefinitely.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s closest ally and longtime strategist, tweeted on Tuesday from an outsider that the plan would fail. “Putin plans and plans a lot of things: to make Russia one of the five largest economies in the world, to take control of Kyiv in 96 hours, to kill Navalny with Novichok. His plans always failed. This is how these nine years will be,” said Volkov.
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