Russia’s Jailing of Putin Foe Navalny Draws U.S., European Ire

Russia imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny for two years and eight months, drawing condemnation from Western leaders as President Vladimir Putin seeks to crush a resurgence in protests against his rule.

A Moscow court converted a suspended sentence that Navalny, 44, received for a 2014 fraud conviction into a prison term for alleged violations of his probation. His 3 1/2-year sentence will be reduced by the 10 months he spent under house arrest in the case, the judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated calls for Navalny’s immediate release after the ruling. “We will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens,” he said.

Navalny was arrested in mid-January as he returned from Germany, where he recovered from a near-fatal attack involving a nerve agent applied to his underwear that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s security services. The Kremlin denies responsibility. The prison term could isolate Navalny but risks escalating the confrontation between the authorities and opposition supporters.

“The main point of this trial isn’t how it turns out for me -- putting me in jail isn’t hard,” Navalny said in a defiant statement from the glass defendant’s cage. “They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.” His lawyers vowed to appeal.

Russia’s Jailing of Putin Foe Navalny Draws U.S., European Ire

Some of the biggest crowds in recent years have joined unsanctioned protests across the country since Navalny was detained. The unrest has resulted in more than 9,000 detentions at rallies in the last two weekends. More than 1,400 protesters were detained Tuesday, mostly in the capital where Navalny’s supporters called for protests near the Kremlin after the sentencing, according to monitoring group OVD-Info.

Leaders across Europe spoke out against Navalny’s imprisonment. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she condemned the sentencing “in the strongest possible terms.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Twitter that the ruling was “far from any rule of law.” France’s President Emmanuel Macron called the sentencing “unacceptable,” while in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a tweet that the ruling was “pure cowardice and fails to meet the most basic standards of justice.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the court’s ruling Wednesday and said he didn’t know how Putin had reacted. He defended the police crackdown as a response to provocations, after social media videos showed alleged brutality against protesters.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized “hysteria” around the case at a Moscow news conference Wednesday, accusing the West of making baseless accusations against Russia.

While the Kremlin’s move to jail Putin’s most prominent critic aims to put a stop to his political activities, Navalny’s backers say he’ll become a powerful symbol of resistance behind bars.

“There are lots of Navalnys,” Ivan Zhdanov, director of the activist’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on TV Rain.

A major test will come when Russia holds parliamentary elections in September.

“Someone didn’t want me to return to Russia a free man. We know who,” Navalny told the court, branding Putin “Vladimir the underpants poisoner.”

In a separate case, Navalny also faces possible new fraud charges that could carry an additional 10-year punishment.

“This is a message to the security services that we’re firm and won’t give in,” said Alexei Makarkin, vice president at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “And it’s a message to the opposition: international notoriety and support don’t give you even minimal immunity.”

Navalny received the suspended sentence in a fraud trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher that also led to a 3 1/2 year jail term for his younger brother, Oleg. Both men denied wrongdoing, and the European Court of Human Rights has called the case politically motivated.

Putin, 68, has been in power since 2000, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In July, he pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to stay as president until 2036. Last year his support fell to a record low amid the Covid-19 downturn, and the continuing slide in incomes is weighing on the Russian leader’s popularity, pollsters say.

Navalny raised the focus on officials’ opulent lifestyles in a video released after his arrest that’s got 108 million views and alleged that Putin owns a giant $1.3 billion Black Sea palace. Putin dismissed the claim and a billionaire ally, Arkady Rotenberg, said last week that he is the beneficial owner of the residence.

“The opposition outside the system is seen by the Kremlin as a hostile force, a threat to national security, which requires harsh, merciless, repressive tactics against Navalny” and his allies, said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political consultancy R.Politik. “This is only the beginning.”

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