MOSCOW - A Russian court has sentenced opposition politician Alexei Navalny to three and a half years in prison, defying condemnation abroad and public outcry at home to send one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics to jail.
Given that the opposition figure had previously spent 10 months under house arrest during a previous phase of the trial, the verdict means Navalny will now spend the next two years and eight months in a Russian penal colony.
The court found Navalny violated his parole from a prior 2014 suspended sentence by failing to notify prison authorities of his whereabouts when he was evacuated to Berlin for treatment following a near-fatal poisoning attack.
“In spite of the court’s humanity, Navalny was in violation more than once,” argued the prosecutor noting the parole violations.
Navalny insists — and international media investigations suggest — the poison attack was carried out by Russian security services who laced his underwear with a military grade nerve agent while the opposition leader was traveling in Siberia last August. Russian authorities deny this.
Navalny arrived in Berlin in a coma only after President Vladimir Putin approved his evacuation following repeated delays — and little certainty he’d survive the
attempt on his life.
'Putin the underwear poisoner'
“What more could I have done?” Asked Navlany to the court. “I was in a coma.”
The opposition politician has long argued his 2014 conviction was politically motivated effort to disqualify him from running for office under current Russian law.
The affair also pressured him personally: he spent the better part of a year under house arrest, while his brother, Oleg, served out a 3.5 year jail term.
In a fiery speech from a glass enclosure before Tuesday’s verdict, Navalny railed at Putin again — alleging, this time, the Russian leader had simply wanted him dead.
“I offended him to death by surviving” said Navalny in reference to Putin as journalists and his wife Yulia looked on in the courtroom.
“However much he pretends to be a great geo-politician, he’ll go down in history as a poisoner. There was Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and Putin the Underwear Poisoner,” said Navalny.
“The most important thing in this process is not what happens to me,” added Navalny. “They’re putting one person in prison to scare millions.”
As the judge rendered the verdict, Navalny drew a heart on the glass holding cage while smiling at his wife.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over the sentencing and called for immediate release of Navalny as well as “hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights.”
Navalny’s allies called for protests throughout the day of the hearing, but were largely thwarted by the throngs of police and riot troops ringing the courthouse in Moscow and nearby streets and metro stations.
Security forces also sealed off key areas near Red Square and other key gathering points downtown.
Even those who managed to find their way to the courthouse were left stranded in nearby parks or walking the circumference of the police lines to catch a glimpse of the court.
“We got here early but every time more than a few people collected, the police chased us off,” said Natalia, 55, an instructor at a local college.
“This will only make people angrier. We all see what’s happening. This was a political decision,” said Dmitry, a 24-year-old shop owner.
Over 350 arrests were reported as of mid-day Tuesday, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info. Several journalists from leading independent Russian media were among those detained despite their press credentials.
They joined an estimated 10,000 people who were swept up in a crackdown amid nationwide protests the past two weekends demanding Navalny’s release.
Indeed, even as Navalny’s trial unfolded, there were indications that Moscow’s holding cells were filled beyond capacity
On Tuesday morning, a group of demonstrators in Moscow issued a video appeal from a crowded police bus, where they said they were being held since their arrest 40 hours earlier.
The group complained they had been given little food or water or access to toilets.
Human rights observers said similar complaints of poor crowded cell conditions were coming from temporary holding facilities around the city.
A dramatic return and challenge
Navalny was detained last month at a Moscow airport upon his return from Germany — where he’d spent nearly five months following a poisoning attack he suffered while traveling in Siberia last August.
European medical experts later determined the opposition politician had been poisoned by a strain of Novichok, a military grade nerve agent first produced in the Soviet Union.
Navalny blames the Russian security services for carrying out the attack on President Putin’s orders.
Putin has denied any involvement — but Russian authorities have also refused to investigate the attack, citing a lack of evidence any crime was committed.
Instead authorities have launched new criminal inquiries into Navalny himself — warning he was likely to go to prison should he choose to return home.
Monday’s court decision follows a recent Navalny-led investigation into President Putin’s wealth that the opposition leader released soon after his detention.
The report alleges the Russian leader secretly owns a luxurious palace on the Black Sea coastline, charges the Kremlin denies.
The video has quickly garnered over 100 million views on YouTube.
The U.S. and European allies have condemned Navalny’s detention and the aggressive government response against demonstrators — prompting talk of a new round of Western sanctions.
That charge again echoed from the Foreign Ministry as representatives from U.S and western Europe consulates arrived at the court to observe the proceedings.
In a post on Facebook, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova questioned whether Western nations were trying to apply “psychological pressure” on the court.
The Kremlin has repeatedly brushed off U.S. and other western criticism of Navalny’s detention as an attempt to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.