The decision to jail Alexei Navalny, the man widely regarded as the most promising opposition leader in Russia, was met with widespread condemnation last night with the European Union saying it raised “serious questions” about Russian law, and the United States announcing it was “deeply disappointed” in the verdict.
Mr Navalny was dispatched to jail for five years yesterday morning, in a sign that President Vladimir Putin intends to continue a crackdown on dissenters implemented after he returned to the Kremlin in May.
Mr Navalny, a blogger and activist who has uncovered numerous cases of high-level corruption in the Russian government, was found guilty of embezzlement at a trial that has been described as logically incoherent and politically motivated. Judge Sergei Blinov, who took over three hours to read the verdict, said Mr Navalny had organised a conspiracy to defraud a timber company in Kirov region. His co-defendant, Petr Ofitserov, received a four-year sentence.
Thousands of people gathered in central Moscow to protest against the decision yesterday evening, resulting in dozens of arrests. Police closed off Manezh Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin, where the rally was planned, but large crowds gathered in the surrounding streets, shouting “Freedom to Navalny!” and “Putin is a thief!” Attempts to block major central streets were swiftly repelled by police.
The sentence is a stark reminder of the uncompromising course that Mr Putin has taken in the past year. The President has never mentioned Mr Navalny by name, but the opposition leader’s charisma and oratory, as well as a populist nationalist streak, have seen him widely singled out as the leader the Kremlin should fear the most. During the trial, Mr Navalny spoke of his desire to “destroy the feudal system” that Mr Putin has implemented, and end “100 families sucking all the wealth from Russia”.
Mr Navalny’s wife Yulia remained composed as her husband was put in handcuffs and led away. The wife of Mr Ofitserov broke down in tears. In his closing statement, Mr Navalny had said he understood the case was a political order but begged the judge not to send Mr Ofitserov, a father of five, to jail as well. “It’s obvious that Ofitserov has been caught up in this completely by chance,” he said. Independent observers have said that the evidence against Mr Navalny simply does not stack up. The judge looked embarrassed but has passed down a tough sentence anyway.
In court, Mr Navalny spent much of the verdict checking his mobile phone and tweeting, and before he was led away posted one final tweet. “Oh well,” he wrote. “Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t stay idle. The frog will not get off the oil pipe itself.” Minutes after the verdict, the two main indexes on Moscow’s stock exchange fell sharply, with Russian shares hitting a four-week low.
In the run-up to yesterday’s verdict, there had been speculation that Mr Navalny would be given a suspended sentence that would take time to come into force officially, allowing him to take part in September’s Moscow mayor elections. The logic was that Mr Navalny would fail to win, and the elections would be given legitimacy.
However, in an unexpected twist, the prosecutor yesterday evening called for Mr Navalny to be released during the appeals process, suggesting that discussions may still be going on in the Kremlin about whether jailing Mr Navalny is really the best course. A hearing is due today, which could result in the whistleblower being freed while the appeals process takes place. This could also leave him free to stand in September’s elections.
The Russian human rights organisation Memorial labelled Mr Navalny and Mr Ofitserov political prisoners, while foreign governments also lined up to criticise the court’s ruling. “We are deeply disappointed in the conviction and the apparent political motivations in this trial,” wrote US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, on Twitter.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man but who has been in jail since 2003 after he was convicted of tax evasion, said: “Until we realise that the trials of Navalny, Bolotnaya, and hundreds of thousands of other guiltlessly convicted people are our trials, they are just going to keep on locking us up, one at a time.”