Alexei Navalny seen on video in first court appearance since transfer to brutal Arctic prison

The most prominent critic of Vladimir Putin sardonically jokes about conditions in jail 1,200 miles from Moscow

Arpan Rai
Wednesday 10 January 2024 14:49 GMT
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Alexei Navalny seen on video for first time since transfer to Arctic prison

Alexei Navalny, the outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has made his first court appearance since his transfer to a maximum-security Arctic penal colony in Russia’s far north.

Appearing via video link, he is seen cracking jokes with the judge, apparently to show that the Kremlin cannot break him, despite the decades of prison time he faces on charges decried as politically motivated by the international community.

The anti-corruption activist and lawyer has kept up an unceasing campaign against Mr Putin’s autocratic rule from behind bars, remaining the president’s most prominent opponent inside Russia.

Mr Navalny’s team said he had been moved to a remote penal colony known as “Polar Wolf”, explaining why he went missing last month. The arduous 1,200-mile journey to the brutal prison takes three weeks by road and rail.

The activist drew laughter from the judge when he asked if a party had been thrown at the Melekhovo facility east of Moscow, where he had previously been held, to celebrate his departure and whether it had included karaoke. He also asked if the prison had held a naked party – a reference to a gathering of scantily clad celebrities in Moscow last month that has caused a national scandal.

Mr Navalny is suing the Russian prison authorities for mistreatment. He joked in his usual sardonic manner in social media posts before the hearing that it would be naive to expect Russia’s president to stop at shuttling him off to the Arctic.

“The thought that Putin will be satisfied with sticking me into a barracks in the far north and will stop torturing me in the punishment-confinement was not only cowardly, but naive as well,” he said. Mr Navalny, 47, is serving sentences totalling more than 30 years on a range of charges, from fraud to extremist activity. His supporters, and Western nations, say the charges have been trumped up to silence him. His being moved coincided with Mr Putin’s announcement that he would run for the presidency again in March elections.

Describing the treatment he has received in prison before Wednesday’s hearing, Mr Navalny said officers at his new jail accused him of refusing to “introduce himself in line with protocol” and ordered him to serve seven days in a punishment cell.

At Wednesday’s hearing, a transcript of which was compiled by independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, Mr Navalny unsuccessfully argued that authorities had acted illegally by sending him to an isolation cell in October for insulting a prison inspector.

Mr Navalny said the inspector had confiscated his pen despite the fact he was entitled to have writing materials, and acknowledged he “went overboard” by calling the official a devil, a moron and a scarecrow. The judge rejected his complaint.

During the hearing, Mr Navalny also said that the food in the Artic prison was fine but he had yet to receive any letters or telegrams. “I’m quite a long way away,” he said. His chief strategist Leonid Volkov said that the Kremlin has thrown Mr Navalny into the colony to further isolate him as it cannot be accessed easily.

“It is almost impossible to get to this colony; it is almost impossible to even send letters there. This is the highest possible level of isolation from the world,” he said.

Mr Navalny’s social media account showed a photo, apparently of him with his back towards the camera, facing a closed-off concrete yard with the caption: “In the photo below, you can see my walking yard; 11 steps from the wall and three to the wall. Not much to walk, but at least there’s something – so I go for a walk.”

Being in a punishment cell means that walking outside in the narrow concrete prison yard is only allowed at 6.30am, he said. “Few things are as refreshing as a walk in Yamal at 6.30 in the morning. And what a wonderful fresh breeze that blows into the courtyard despite the concrete fence; it’s just wow!”

“It’s never been colder than -25F (-32C). Even at that temperature you can walk for more than half an hour, but only if you have time to grow a new nose, ears, and fingers,” he joked. The message came from the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp in the Yamal-Nenets region, about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow, on December 25, said his supporters.

“Today I went for a walk, froze, and thought of Leonardo DiCaprio and his character’s dead horse trick in the movie The Revenant. I do not think that it would have worked here. A dead horse would freeze to death in about 15 minutes,” his account posted.

Inmates in regular conditions are allowed to walk “after lunch, and even though it is the polar night right now, still after lunch it is warmer by several degrees”, he said. The region where the prison colony sits, in Kharp, about 60 miles from Vorkuta whose coal mines were part of the Soviet gulag prison camp system, is notorious for long and severe winters.

Mr Navalny has been behind bars since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning, which he blamed on the Kremlin. Before his arrest, he campaigned against official corruption and organised major anti-Kremlin protests.

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