Days after jailed for violating parole, Alexie Navalny back in court, this time in defamation case

Prosecutors accuse Navalny of slandering a World War II veteran in social media posts last year. The posts criticised people who supported constitutional amendments that allowed Putin to remain in power until 2036

The New York Times February 05, 2021 22:12:19 IST
Days after jailed for violating parole, Alexie Navalny back in court, this time in defamation case

File image of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. AP

Moscow: Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, faced a new criminal trial Friday — this time on charges of slandering a war veteran — while his supporters geared up for what they expect to be a yearslong battle against the Kremlin.

The start of the new trial came three days after a different court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating his parole on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Europe’s top human rights court later ruled was politically motivated.

The trial, in which Navalny is not expected to face more prison time, appeared to be a vehicle for the Kremlin to tie his team up further in the courts while also giving the state news media a fresh opportunity to tar the opposition leader’s image.

Prosecutors accuse Navalny of slandering a World War II veteran in social media posts last year. The posts criticized people who support President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional amendments approved in July that allow him to remain in power until 2036.

“The Kremlin needs headlines that say, ‘Navalny slandered a veteran!’ ” Navalny said in court Friday, according to the Dozhd television channel.

Navalny survived a nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia in the summer and recovered in Germany, accusing Putin of having tried to kill him. Then he returned to Moscow last month despite facing near-certain arrest.

His arrival set off the biggest nationwide anti-Kremlin protests of recent years and brought an enormous crackdown on the opposition, with more than 10,000 arrests in the last three weeks. The Kremlin’s show of force suggests that Putin sees the longtime gadfly as a significant threat — and that the president will not shy away from bringing the government’s vast resources to bear on stifling dissent.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning and says that detentions at unauthorized protests are justified and lawful.

Navalny can still appeal his prison sentence in the previous trial, and his allies are working to prepare their supporters for a long fight ahead.

One of Navalny’s top aides, Leonid Volkov, said his camp would not be calling for more street protests in the coming weeks because it needed to regroup before nationwide parliamentary elections that are scheduled for September.

“This is a path that could take several years, but this is our plan,” Volkov said. “We need to preserve our candidates for the election, and we need to preserve our campaign offices.”

The Navalny camp’s strategy is to build up pressure on the Kremlin and chip away at Putin’s legitimacy, with the expectation that sooner or later, his authority will collapse amid discontent in the general public and in the ruling elite.

Navalny’s allies abroad, including Volkov, are also increasingly engaging with Western governments in the hopes of persuading them to impose sanctions on people close to Putin.

“If we keep going out every week, we’ll get thousands more arrested and hundreds more beaten up, and the work of the campaign offices will be paralyzed,” Volkov said. “We will get Alexei out of prison, first and foremost, using foreign-policy methods.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, was in Moscow to meet with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday. Borrell has called Navalny’s prison term “politically motivated and against Russia’s international human rights obligations.”

Russia counters that Western countries are interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs by calling for Navalny’s freedom.

Navalny, in a letter from jail that his team published late Thursday, called on his supporters to keep up the fight.

“The iron doors slam shut behind me with a deafening clang, but I feel like a free man,” Navalny wrote. “They can hold onto power, using it for personal gain, only by relying on our fear. But we, having overcome fear, can free our homeland from a little bunch of thieving occupiers.”

Anton Troianovski c.2021 The New York Times Company

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