More than 200 supporters of Russian opposition leader and main Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were arrested Tuesday outside a trial hearing that could see him imprisoned for up to three-and-a-half years.
At least 287 people were arrested while the hearing was taking place, days after more than 5,000 people were detained across the country for protesting in support of Navalny, according to the independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group.
Navalny received a suspended prison sentence for fraud in 2014, which the Russian authorities are now applying to turn into a full custodial sentence due to alleged parole violations. The European Court of Human Rights deemed that conviction politically motivated.
Navalny, 44, was poisoned and almost died while conducting a corruption investigation in Siberia last summer. He was airlifted to Germany for treatment after Russian doctors found no signs of poisoning. It was later determined that he was poisoned with Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, which Navalny claims was ordered by President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
Standing behind reinforced glass, Navalny joked with his wife Yulia, who was arrested at a rally last weekend, calling her “a bad girl.”
Later, Navalny gave a fiery speech in court, denouncing the proceedings and reiterating his claim that the case against him has been fabricated, according to a transcription provided by Russia’s TV Doghd news channel. Reporters were present but not allowed to bring cameras into the courtroom.
He said President Putin was personally after him.
“He can pretend to be a great politician, but he will go down in history as a poisoner,” Navalny said. “We had Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise and now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.”
Navalny was referring to his own investigation of his poisoning which he claims revealed that his alleged assassins smeared poison on his underwear.
The point of his trial was not to jail him, but to intimidate his supporters, he said.
“This process won’t be perceived by people as a signal to be more afraid,” he said. “This is a demonstration of weakness, not strength.”
Illustrating the international interest in the case, foreign diplomats from at least 12 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union, were in court to observe the hearing, the court confirmed to Russian news agency Interfax.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook the diplomats’ presence “isn’t just meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, but the self-incrimination of the west’s unsightly and illegal attempts to contain Russia.”
As Navalny’s trial was underway, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow has reasons to believe that the politician’s poisoning was “a sham,” Russia state news agency Tass reported.
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Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years with his anti-corruption investigations into the Kremlin elite. His latest investigation into a luxurious palace allegedly belonging to Putin has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. The Russian president has denied he owns the palace.
Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport as he arrived from Berlin last month and called on his supporters and those frustrated with Putin’s regime to “abandon their fear” and take to the streets in protest.
His calls were heeded as tens of thousands of people joined protesters throughout Russia on Jan. 23 — despite freezing temperatures, coronavirus pandemic and multiple warnings from Russian authorities not to attend — in one of the biggest shows of discontent Russia has seen in recent years. Nearly 4,000 people were detained by police, some of them violently.
On Sunday, a similar-size crowd took to the streets again across the country amid high security in the country’s capital. More than 5,600, including journalists, were detained amid reports police used tear gas, tasers and batons to crack down on protesters.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov on Monday described the protesters as “hooligans” and “provocateurs,” who displayed “aggressive behavior” toward law enforcement.
Navalny’s detention and police crackdown on protesters have caused indignation from the U.S. and its European allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russian authorities for using “harsh tactics” against protesters and journalists on Sunday.
Yuliya Talmazan and Patrick Smith reported from London; Matt Bodner reported from Moscow.
Reuters contributed to this report.