MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday accused Russian authorities of fabricating a libel case against him, calling the prosecution's case "obvious legal nonsense."
The prosecutor asked for a fine of just under $13,000 for allegedly libeling an elderly World War II veteran. The court adjourned and will deliver its judgment Saturday.
The case is one of several mounted against Navalny. He was given a jail sentence of two years, eight months earlier this month for breaching the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence. An appeal is due to be heard Saturday.
He faces another trial for alleged embezzlement, carrying a penalty of 10 years in a legal system often criticized for having politicized or corrupt judgments and with a conviction rate of 99 percent.
Navalny says these cases are designed to silence him and intimidate his supporters.
European Union leaders are considering new sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent last August, widely viewed as a bungled state assassination attempt, after a member of the hit team confirmed details of the poisoning in a phone call with Navalny last year.
Navalny’s alleged libel was over a June propaganda video on Kremlin television mouthpiece RT in which a group of actors, sports people and celebrities promoted a vote on constitutional changes that would enable President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. Navalny tweeted that the members of the group were “traitors” and “corrupt lackeys.”
Russia’s Investigative Committee accused Navalny of spreading harmful lies about an elderly war veteran Ignat Artemenko, who was among the figures in the video. Artemenko was the only one on whose behalf a criminal libel case has been mounted.
Russian state television presenter Vladimir Solovyov called Navalny “Nazi scum” in June, referring to Navalny’s tweets about the RT video.
Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova called the case “far-fetched and arbitrary” on Tuesday. Rejecting the prosecution’s claim that Navalny acted maliciously, she stated that he merely expressed an opinion.
The trial procedures at times appeared flawed, with Navalny being denied the opportunity to question Artemenko who fell suddenly ill on the first day of the hearing, Feb. 5, right after he finished reading his evidence. An ambulance was called and the prosecutor requested that the court transcript show that it was Navalny’s fault the elderly man fell sick.
The testimony from Artemenko and his nurse was presented via video from the veteran’s apartment, where he appeared wearing his war medals. Navalny complained that the quality of the video link, which went down several times, was so poor it was difficult to make out what witnesses were saying.
He also questioned the presence of a judge in Artemenko’s apartment, asking if she was telling Artemenko what to say.
Artemenko submitted a statement to court blaming Navalny’s “constant insults” for his poor health. Navalny claimed Artemenko’s statement appeared to have been concocted.
Artemenko’s grandson Igor Kolesnikov appeared to contradict himself when questioned by Navalny over the libel complaint, at one point telling the court he did not remember where he filed the complaint and at another point claiming that neither he nor his grandfather filed a complaint for libel. Navalny accused Kolesnikov of “trading” his grandfather for material gain.
Elena Lukyanova, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, told the Echo of Moscow radio program last week that “legally, this is absolute nonsense.”
“Navalny is absolutely not guilty of anything [concerning] the veteran because he did not insult the veteran personally,” she said.
The prosecutor, Yekaterina Frolova, who also prosecuted the recent case which saw Navalny jailed for two years and eight months, is portrayed as a hero on state media for her tough approach. She called on investigative authorities to reexamine Navalny’s comments during the trial, claiming he had once more libeled Artemenko, as well as the judge and herself.
Navalny has emerged as Putin’s main political rival, exposing the corruption and kleptocracy that has flourished under the Russian president’s rule.