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Kremlin Critic Navalny Sent To Prison On Old Conviction

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears in the Moscow City Court in Moscow on Tuesday.
Moscow City Court via AP
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears in the Moscow City Court in Moscow on Tuesday.

Updated at 5:06 p.m. ET

A Moscow judge ruled Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny must go to prison for violating the terms of a 2014 conviction. Navalny has called the old conviction politically motivated.

Police have detained more than 900 people who protested his sentencing, according to Reuters on Tuesday.

Prosecutors pushed to turn Navalny's 3.5-year suspended sentence into actual prison time, which the judge accepted, even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that Navalny had been tried unfairly.

Navalny previously spent time under house arrest for that fraud conviction. According to Russian media, that time will be taken into account, meaning Navalny is expected to spend two years and eight months in prison.

Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 immediately after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poison attack with a rare nerve agent that he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian authorities, who have denied any involvement in the August poisoning, pressured Navalny to remain in exile.

The prison service claimed Navalny had violated the terms of his 2014 parole by not checking in while he was undergoing treatment in Germany.

Navalny, who was detained at Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, was led into the glass defendant's box that is typical for Russian courtrooms. Reporters were allowed to take pictures only before the hearing began, and Navalny, wearing a blue hoodie, could be seen communicating with his wife, Yuliya, and his lawyers.

"I very much hope that people won't see this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. It's not a show of strength but a show of weakness," Navalny told the court, according to a transcript by the news site Meduza. "They can't put millions and hundreds of thousands in jail."

"I salute all the honest people all over the country who are not afraid and take to the streets," he said.

Outside the court, riot police in full battle gear had secured a wide perimeter. Independent news outlets such as TV Rain broadcast live coverage of a passersby being arrested and bundled into police trucks.

Police used similar tactics at a protest in Moscow on Sunday, arresting random demonstrators as they made their way through the city on a march demanding Navalny's release. Protests have broken out in dozens of Russian cities, from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

More than 5,600 people were detained in 90 cities during protests Sunday, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info, which tracks political persecution in Russia. In Moscow, where almost 1,900 people were arrested, there was not enough space in city jails and detainees were forced to sit for hours in crowded buses without food or water, OVD-Info reported.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" by the court's decision. "We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly," he added in a statement.

"The Kremlin is waging a war on the human rights of people in Russia, stifling protesters' calls for freedom and change," Amnesty International said in a statement before the hearing. "This is a desperate attempt to silence criticism, and it needs to stop." Amnesty has recognized Navalny as a "prisoner of conscience."

Russia is facing new calls for sanctions among European Union countries, and the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, is expected to bring up Navalny's arrest on his official visit to Moscow later this week. Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has called on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on 35 individuals in Putin's inner circle.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Navalny's case is exclusively a domestic matter and that Russia will not take instructions from foreign governments. The Kremlin has suggested that Navalny works for U.S. intelligence and has branded the Anti-Corruption Foundation a "foreign agent."

Peskov told reporters that Putin was not following Navalny's hearing and was meeting with educators Tuesday.

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Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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