MOSCOW - A Russian court has rejected an appeal in the sentencing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny — clearing the way for the Kremlin critic to spend more than two-and-a-half years in prison, despite protests at home, and a new rift in Russia’s relations with the West over the case.
In an appeal hearing Saturday, the judge removed six weeks from Navalny’s jail term but upheld an earlier decision that he had failed to meet his parole requirements stemming from a suspended sentence he received in 2014.
Navalny has always argued the initial conviction — a charge of embezzlement — was politically motivated to prevent him from running for elected office.
“They’ve reduced the sentence by 1.5 months. That’s good!” remarked Navalny with a grin upon hearing the ruling Saturday. In shaving off jail time, the judge said he was factoring in time Navalny had spent under house arrest in 2015.
Navalny noted the parole violation charges occurred after he was evacuated to Germany following a near lethal poisoning from a military grade nerve agent.
“I don’t want to show off, but the whole world knew where I was,” said Navalny to the judge.
The opposition figure has accused Russia’s security services of carrying out the attack on President Vladimir Putin’s orders — a charge the Kremlin vehemently denies.
Navalny also accuses the government of sending him to jail in order to intimidate his supporters.
“The authorities are trying to say to us: you’re all alone,” said Navalny during his final statement to the court.
“But I don’t feel that way at all,” he added, noting the support he’d received from around the country.
One day, two court cases
Yet Navalny’s legal troubles weren’t over — even for the day.
In a highly unusual move, Navlany faced a second court later that afternoon in which he was found guilty of libel and fined a bit more than $11,000.
The court said Navalny had defamed World War II veteran Ignat Artemenko when he criticized him and other “traitors” for taking part in a Kremlin video promoting changes to Russia’s constitution last summer.
The reforms — since passed — opened the door to President Vladimir Putin remaining in power well into the future.
State media have given wide coverage of prosecutors' arguments that Navalny denigrated the Soviet war effort and those who fought in it.
Navalny says the case is an attempt to smear his name by exploiting the public’s veneration for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany — in which an estimated 20 million Soviets died.
“We just had one court hearing, and now another,” said Navalny to the judge. “All so this evening they can say that Navalny’s going to prison, not because he hid from his parole officers, but because he offended a veteran.”
Meanwhile, he faces additional defamation cases from Kremlin allies — a factor that raised questions as to when authorities would ship Navalny to a prison colony to begin serving his term.
Dramatic return, uncertain future
Navalny was detained immediately upon his return to Russia from Germany last month— defying government attempts to force him into exile by warning he could face possible jail time should he return home.
His arrest sparked countrywide protests, along with a police crackdown that saw the detention of more than 10,000 people, according to monitoring groups.
Citing police violence, Navalny’s allies have since called off street protests until spring.
Yet public anger has simmered around a new Navalny-led investigation into Kremlin corruption. Upon his detention in Russia, Navalny released a video that claims to have uncovered a luxurious palace belonging to President Putin on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
Although the Russian leader has denied any direct connection to the property, the video has been viewed more than 110 million times.
A close Putin ally later claimed he bought the property to build a luxury hotel.
The U.S. and European allies have called for Navalny’s release and promised to consider targeted sanctions against Putin’s allies.
This week, the European Court of Human Rights, of which Russia is a member, also issued a ruling demanding Navalny’s release — a point Navalny noted Saturday during his initial hearing.
Yet Moscow has clashed repeatedly with the tribunal in recent years — even amending Russian law last summer to give its courts precedent on constitutional issues.
Earlier this week, Russia’s Justice Ministry rejected the European order as “unfulfillable,” and a political decision aimed at violating Russia’s sovereignty.
The Kremlin repeatedly has dismissed western criticism over its treatment of Navalny as interference in Russia’s internal affairs. That is a position government critics say crystalized with Saturday’s court ruling.
“Alexey Navalny won’t be freed before Russia itself is free,” wrote the Gregori Chkhartishvili — a writer better known under his pen name Boris Akunin — in a post to Facebook.
“Now this is finally clear.”