Moscow Defiant As Pressure Mounts On Russia Over Navalny Prison Sentence
By RFE/RL February 03, 2021
MOSCOW -- Russian officials stood defiant as Western countries ratcheted up pressure on the Kremlin after a Moscow court a day earlier sentenced Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny to jail time, a move that sparked immediate protests in Russia amid suspicions the ruling was aimed at crushing growing dissent inside Russia.
Judge Natalya Repnikova on February 2 ordered a suspended 3 1/2-year sentence Navalny received in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony, cutting it to 2 years and 8 months for time already served.
The decision outraged his supporters, hundreds of whom took to the streets to protest. Washington demanded Russia release Navalny and others detained during recent protests.
It also sparked a wave of criticism from world leaders and rights organizations who called for the 44-year-old Kremlin critic's immediate release.
The German government said on February 3 that further sanctions against Russia cannot be ruled out, while the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said Navalny's sentence for allegedly violating the conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence came in an embezzlement case "that the European Court of Human Rights had in 2017 already unanimously found to be arbitrary, unfair, and manifestly unreasonable."
"We are deeply dismayed by the sentencing of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny by a court in Moscow yesterday," UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement, adding that Russian authorities should immediately release peaceful protesters, including the more than 1,400 arrested on February 2.
Navalny has become the country's most influential opposition figure after years of skillfully harnessing social media to channel growing discontent over a host of issues ranging from falling living standards to perceptions of corruption against President Vladimir Putin and his ruling elite.
That has made him a potential threat to the Kremlin, which appears to want to make an example of him, analysts said.
Putin opted for such a harsh sentence "to make Navalny -- and others -- realize that they face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives behind bars," Tatyana Stanovaya, a founder of the think tank R. Politik, said in a tweet.
She warned that other groups, including liberal media, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition-minded activists, will face increased pressure as the Kremlin seeks to quell protests that have grown in number over the years.
The Kremlin has already been cracking down on the opposition and rights groups through new repressive laws passed by a compliant parliament.
On February 3, the Kremlin said that Russian riot police were justified in using harsh methods to break up protests against the jailing of Navalny and that illegal protest activity needed to be stamped out.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that calls by Navalny's allies for Russians to take to the streets following his jailing on February 2 were a provocation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 3 accused the West of "going overboard" in its reaction to the Navalny hearing and ruling. He also claimed laws regulating protests in the West were tougher than those in Russia.
"The hysterics that we've heard over the judicial proceedings in Navalny's case is definitely going overboard. And it's been absolutely hidden from the public that the laws in the West for holding demonstrations, rallies, and various protests are much harsher than in Russia," Lavrov was quoted as saying by TASS.
Navalny was handed a 3 1/2 year sentence by a Moscow court but will serve 2 years and 8 months in jail because of time previously spent under house arrest.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Kremlin critic and former Duma member, warned that Navalny's arrest could lead to a new wave of emigration among Russia's most politically active citizens.
Navalny has been held since his high-stakes return on January 17 from Germany, where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning he claims Putin ordered.
The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) had accused Navalny of parole violations relating to a suspended sentence he had been serving in a 2014 embezzlement case he calls trumped up.
Speech In Court
In a statement to the court earlier on February 2, Navalny repeatedly mocked Putin while stressing the aim of the hearing was to try to intimidate anyone who stood up to the Kremlin.
"The main thing in this whole trial isn't what happens to me. Locking me up isn't difficult," he told the court.
"What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions," Navalny said as he faced the court in a glass-enclosed holding cell.
The activist demonstrated his considerable national political influence when tens of thousands of people -- despite threats of arrest -- heeded his calls on January 23 and January 31 to protest against his detention.
The rallies were the largest anti-government protests in Russia in a decade with people assembling in more than 100 cities around the country. Police at times used violence as they detained some 10,000 participants.
Navanly's jailing comes as the Kremlin prepares for key parliamentary elections in September. Putin controls the parliament through the ruling United Russia party, which rubber-stamps his legislation.
However, the party's ratings are slumping as the economy and wages stagnate. Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation is seeking to chip away at Kremlin control through a campaign to encourage voters to reject United Russia candidates at the ballot box.
"Putin needs Navalny in jail during Russia's next round of elections. That is obvious. He fears Navalny," Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and a Kremlin critic, said in a tweet.
After the verdict, Navalny's team immediately called for further demonstrations, hoping to capitalize on the momentum of the past two weekends.
However, the government deployed a large force of riot police in Moscow and closed down many streets, including those around the court complex.
More than 1,400 people in 10 cities across the country, including more than 1,100 in Moscow, had been detained by the early hours of February 3, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
The February 2 decision sparked strong criticism in the West, with the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union issuing statements denouncing the decision.
The West's relationship with Russia had already been tense following a host of malign activities that the EU, the United States, and other countries have pinned on the Kremlin, including election interference, state-sponsored hacks, and the use of chemical weapons.
The jailing of Navalny could trigger yet more moves against the Kremlin as the West, with new leadership in Washington, seeks to show greater resolve on human rights abuses in Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was "deeply concerned" by Navalny's jailing and called on Russia to release the activist and "the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights."
He said that Washington and its Western partners would react if Russia did not live up to its international obligations to respect freedom of assembly and expression.
"Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens," he said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is expected in Moscow from February 4-6 to meet with top Russian officials and members of civil society. Navalny's detention and poisoning is expected to be high on his agenda.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current Time
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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