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Russian court sentences Kremlin critic Navalny to nine more years in prison on fraud conviction

A Russian court convicted top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny of fraud and contempt of court on March 22 and sentenced him to nine more years in prison. (Video: Reuters)
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A Russian court convicted top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny of fraud and contempt of court Tuesday and sentenced him to nine more years in prison, elevating his team’s fears for his life while in detention.

Immediately after the day-long hearing, his lawyers, Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev, were also briefly detained by police, according to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The attorneys were talking to the media outside the penal colony where Navalny is being held when police made people disperse and took the lawyers away in a police van before eventually releasing them.

“The whole world knows that this trial has nothing to do with the law,” Navalny ally Ruslan Shaveddinov said in a live commentary of the court hearing on YouTube immediately after the sentence was announced. “We see that Alexei will be held in prison for many more years; they hope to do that. We can’t turn a blind eye to this as we see that everything is headed toward a very sad end of our country.”

The hearing took place in a penal colony in Pokrov, about 70 miles east of Moscow, where Navalny is already serving a 2 ½-year sentence for violating his parole when he sought medical treatment in Germany after being poisoned.

It is not immediately clear whether the two sentences will be combined. Shaveddinov said that the legal team is trying to clarify that with the judge but suspects that the total sentence Navalny will have to serve will amount to roughly 12 years.

In this trial, the opposition leader was accused of disrespecting the court in last year’s libel case against war veteran Ignat Artemenko and of large-scale fraud for allegedly misusing donations received by his anti-corruption foundation. Navalny and his team said the charges were fabricated to silence him and slammed the trials as a sham.

Who is Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic serving time in a Russian penal colony?

The prosecution has requested to transfer him to a maximum-security prison on grounds he had committed “crimes” while in the penal colony. His team is worried that this will reduce already limited access to Navalny, as he is likely to be transferred to a far corner of the country.

“Without public protection, Alexei will be face to face with those who have already tried to kill him,” Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh tweeted ahead of the hearing. “And nothing will stop them from trying again. Therefore, we are now talking not only about Alexei’s freedom but also about his life.”

“It will be practically impossible to access it and keep contact with Alexei,” she added.

In a message on Instagram, his wife, Yulia, said that after 20 years of marriage they would overcome this sentence as well. “The figure ‘nine’ means nothing. I love you, my dearest person on the planet, and I can’t stop being proud of you for so many years.”

Navalny’s movement and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which conducted myriad investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elite, including President Vladimir Putin, were labeled extremist and banned last year. Many of Navalny’s allies have fled the country to avoid persecution.

Yet Navalny continues to speak out by sending messages via his legal team to be posted on his social media accounts that have amassed millions of followers. He also used the opportunity to make a closing statement in court to criticize Putin, denounce the war in Ukraine and urge Russians to protest it.

“The consequence of this war will be a breakdown, the collapse of our country,” Navalny said in a March 16 hearing, which was broadcast to journalists via a patchy video link. “It sounds a little wild. But the phrase ‘Russo-Ukrainian War’ also sounds pretty wild.”

“You can’t lock up everyone. Go ahead, ask for 113 years [in prison] and give it to me — you won’t scare me or anybody else like me,” he added.

“Russia’s big, there are a lot of people here, and not everybody’s cowardly enough to betray their future and their children’s futures like you are,” he said, referring to Judge Margarita Kotova and the prosecution. A few days before the Tuesday hearing, Putin promoted Kotova by signing a presidential decree.

Navalny, a leading opposition figure in Russia, was poisoned in August 2020 with what European laboratories established to be the banned military-grade nerve agent Novichok. After recovering in Germany, he returned to Russia in early 2021 and was immediately arrested, prompting mass protests in his support. The authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on his supporters and his movement, which he has led since the late 2000s.

Navalny blamed the attack and subsequent persecution personally on Putin. The Kremlin repeatedly denied the accusations.