The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a Russian court, Alexei Navalny loses again but still has the last word

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a court hearing in Moscow on Saturday. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny lost in court Saturday twice — but again used his time in the dock to expound on why he stands against President Vladimir Putin, no matter the personal risk.

Even as Russian authorities try to crush Navalny's stature and his activist network, a series of court hearings has offered him an unexpected public forum for commentary that has run from the serious to the sublime.

From the glass-enclosed cage used for defendants, he has talked about a salted cucumber recipe and mused about his lonely path — jailed for standing against the regime.

He has called the judge in his libel case "Obersturmbannführer" — a Nazi paramilitary rank — and described Putin as an old man quivering in his bunker, terrified of his own people.

An Instagram post attributed to him Wednesday mused about spaceships and the risks of living in confinement.

Not expecting justice from a judiciary with an acquittal rate of less than half a percent, Navalny used his time in the dock in two recent court trials to ram home his message that Russia’s criminal justice system is a sham used to silence Putin’s critics.

What to know about Navalny’s protest movement in Russia — and why it unnerves Putin

He called the cases “performances” trumped up by the authorities to instill fear in the population or to smear him, but he has seized the stage they afford for his own purposes.

In separate proceedings Saturday, he was convicted of libel and lost an appeal against jail time. A third case, involving embezzlement allegations and up to 10 years in prison, is pending.

At the appeal hearing Saturday, Navalny mused on the meaning of life and the importance of religious belief, telling the truth and doing what was right, no matter how hard the consequences.

He said the authorities were using the trials against him “showing me they can do as they want, like jugglers.

“Ordinary people who look at this think, ‘What if I run into the judicial system? Do I stand a chance?’ ”

The goal of power, he said, was to make people like him feel isolated, alone and frightened.

Navalny said if he was not willing to take risks, he would just be a bunch of molecules floating through space.

He was not enjoying prison but said “I do not feel any regret. On the contrary, I feel satisfaction. In a difficult moment, I have not betrayed the commandments.”

The court rejected his appeal against the jail term but shortened it slightly to two years and six months to take into account the time he has spent under house arrest.

The Kremlin has rejected a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights calling for Navalny’s immediate release.

Navalny said the libel case, in which he is accused of defaming a World War II veteran, is designed as a smear. On Monday, a state media presenter, Vladimir Solovyov, compared Navalny unfavorably to Hitler, who he said had fought bravely as a soldier — “unlike this codpiece Führer,” a reference to a state security agent’s comment that the opposition leader’s underwear was poisoned in an August attack.

The libel allegation stemmed from Navalny’s tweet criticizing a group of people — including actors, other celebrities, sports figures and one war veteran, 94-year-old Ignat Artemenko — who appeared in a RT network propaganda video urging Russians to support constitutional changes that could keep Putin in power until 2036. Navalny called the participants traitors and lackeys.

For Kremlin critic Navalny, 10 hours in court and more ahead over alleged defamation of veteran

Judge Vera Akimova fined him 850,000 rubles, or about $11,500. His lawyers argued that his tweet was not libelous because the activist was voicing an opinion, not an assertion capable of being proved factual or otherwise.

When the judge repeatedly struck out the questions Navalny raised during the trial, he addressed her from his glass prisoner’s cage as Obersturmbannführer and likened the hearing to a Nazi interrogation, adding that she would look good with a German machine gun.

In his final words before the libel verdict Saturday, Navalny said Putin’s United Russia party — which faces testing parliamentary elections in September — “has turned into an enormous pig which guzzles from a trough of oil and dollars.” He said the regime was using the libel case to pretend it cared about veterans.

Authorities have restricted Navalny’s ability to use the hearing as a platform, with Akimova barring video of the proceedings. However, state media aired his rant against the judge at length, while also reporting that his remarks could trigger yet more charges — of insulting the court.

“Navalny’s hysterics continue, and in the meantime his team, guided by sponsors from the United States, Canada and Europe, are preparing a military coup in the country,” state TV presenter Yevgeny Popov said.

By Tuesday, the third day of the hearing, Navalny said the case was so ridiculous he might just as well talk about cucumbers as the law.

“Every moment of this case is obvious legal nonsense,” he said, veering off to tell how he had to order salt repeatedly to his cell, only to finally get three kilograms all at once.

“Now I have a lot of cucumbers and three kilos of salt. Since it makes no sense to talk about any legal issues here, maybe, prosecutor and your honor, you know some good recipes for salted cucumbers,” he said.

By Saturday he said people had sent him some fun recipes by post and he managed to salt his cucumbers in a plastic bag. He even made a strange kind of ice cream, melting butter in a kettle, then whipping it up with sour cream and putting it in his fridge.

“I’m going to miss dinner,” Navalny said when the judge was tardy to read the verdict. “It doesn’t matter, I’ll eat my pickles.”

According to the independent investigative media website Proyekt, the libel case grew out of a vast Kremlin-directed campaign involving state security service agents, state media propagandists, regional governors and ambitious freelancers all working to discredit Navalny. In August, Proyekt published a WhatsApp message that it said was from the presidential administration to all regional policy groups in June initiating an operation against Navalny — based on his tweet — in the lead-up to the Jun. 25 to July 1 vote on the constitutional changes.

“Colleagues, we must urgently organize an information campaign (responses, quotes, rebukes) defending the WWII veteran insulted by A. Navalny. The campaign is to run *until 1 July*,” the message said. It asked participants to initiate news articles citing other veterans, patriots “or simply any high-profile or well-known individuals” and to submit the articles and links to it.

At the appeal hearing Saturday, Navalny said he dreamed of a future when Russia was not only free but also happy.

“Despite the fact that our country is built on injustice and we constantly face it and see its worst form, armed injustice, tens of millions of people want the truth and sooner or later they will get it,” he said.

Navalny is finding other ways to communicate. A post on his Instagram account Wednesday, made on his behalf, said that being in jail was not so hard but felt rather like a space voyage “to a beautiful new world.”

“Could I, a fan of books and movies about space, refuse such a flight, even if it lasts three years? Obviously no,” he wrote.

“There’s just one big difference from space movies. I have no weapons at all. What if the ship is attacked by xenomorphs? I doubt I could fight them off with a kettle.”

Space travel is “dangerous,” Navalny added. The voyage could take years longer than expected, or it could take him nowhere.

In Russia, tough new laws and stepped-up defiance abroad mark Putin’s shift toward unfettered control

Even from jail, Navalny knows how to enrage Putin. This time it’s with a viral video.