Russian authorities condemned their most prominent critic to nearly three years in a prison colony on Tuesday in a widely-anticipated decision that was accompanied by angry protests outside.
Speaking from behind a glass box in the courtroom, Mr Navalny said he was being punished for surviving an assassination attempt ordered by Vladimir Putin. He had made the Russian president angrier, he said, by “showing and proving” his involvement in the crime.
In a stinging attack, Mr Navalny ridiculed his nemesis as a “small-minded bureaucrat” who only managed to stay where he was by murdering people.
“You’ve heard of Alexander the Liberator, and Yaroslav the Wise,” he said. “Well this man will go down in history as Vladimir the poisoner of underpants.”
Judge Natalya Repnikova took over two hours to consider a verdict that eventually surprised no one. When she returned just after 8pm local time (5pm GMT), she sided with prosecutors who had demanded the court convert a three and a half year historic suspended sentence into a real jail term. It was reduced to two years and 8 months to take into account time already spent under house arrest.
Mr Navalny’s alleged crime was to miss parole meetings in connection with a 2014 embezzlement conviction, since dismissed by the European Court of Human Rights as politically motivated. Prosecutors claimed the Kremlin critic had “systematically” and “deliberately” evaded his parole obligations during the time he was de-facto recovering from Novichok nerve agent poisoning in Germany.
The state prison service first made the claims on December 29, at a time when Mr Navalny was preparing to return home. In one of several interventions, the poisoned opposition politician asked why authorities only contacted him by text message the day before putting him on international wanted lists.
“Tell me how I could have complied with your demands any better,” he said, his voice seething with indignation. “I was in a coma, then in intensive care, then I sent you a letter explaining where I was. You had my address and phone numbers.”
“You should have sent a letter with an explanation of extenuating circumstances,” replied the prison service official.
Again, Mr Navalny pointed out he had been in a coma.
Despite the likelihood of arrest or worse, Mr Navalny made the decision to return to Russia on 17 January. He was detained immediately on arrival, but not before his plane was theatrically diverted away from waiting supporters at another Moscow airport.
Today’s court process was not without its own twists, with court location, judge and start time all changed at the last minute.
In the streets and squares outside, authorities demonstrated obvious anxiety. In an unprecedented security operation beginning three hours before the 11am start (8am GMT), the entire district surrounding the courtroom in northeastern Moscow was placed in lockdown.
Lines of police vans radiated out from the nearest metro station. Passport checks filtered journalists and residents from potential protesters. Getting to the main court building meant dealing with four lines of riot police.
Nadezhda Ivanovna, surname withheld, a retired economics teacher, was one of few who managed to evade the first few checkpoints – she got by the checks by dint of her advanced age. She was finally stopped at the third checkpoint about 300m away from the courtroom.
The pensioner said she had come to offer her support. “For who?” the bewildered officer asked. “Who do you think? For Navalny.” She was told to leave or risk arrest. “I don’t understand, you’re putting Russians up against Russians,” she shouted. “He’s one of us.”
Arrests, which started in the hour before the start of proceedings, had exceeded 350 by the time of the sentencing, with supporters of the Kremlin critic picked off as they turned out to protest the likely guilty verdict.
In court, Mr Navalny called on those outside to continue to resist. There were many people who had chosen “not to lower their eyes” and would not hand over their country to a group of corrupt bureaucrats. The reaction of the Kremlin to “close down half of Moscow” and bringing out the men in uniform was a demonstration of “weakness”.
“You can’t jail the entire country,” he said. “There will come a point when people realise this.”
At several moments, Judge Repnikova interrupted the Putin critic and asked him “not to engage in politics”. The courtroom was not a “rally,” she noted.
“But that is exactly where I am,” Mr Navalny said.
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