By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(MOSCOW) — A Russian court ordered opposition leader Alexey Navalny be sent to a prison camp for two years and eight months, imprisoning President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic despite an international outcry and protests in Russia that have roiled the country.
As the verdict was read out, Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent last summer, smiled and shrugged inside a glass cage in court.
Tuesday’s decision by a judge at Moscow’s city court upheld a request by Russia’s federal penitentiary service to change an old suspended jail sentence into a real prison term on the grounds Navalny had allegedly violated the terms of his parole.
That sentence, though, was from a 2014 embezzlement trial widely criticized as politically motivated and that the European Court of Human Rights found was unjust and part of a pattern of political persecution of Navalny. The suspended sentence was for three and a half years, but the judge on Tuesday reduced it to take into account a year Navalny already spent under house arrest.
In a fiery closing speech before the decision, Navalny, a former lawyer who built a following through investigations posted as videos online exposing alleged corruption among powerful Russians close to the Kremlin, castigated the hearing, calling it a show trial.
“They want to jail me for a case in which I was found innocent,” Navalny said, pointing to the European Court ruling.
He also took aim at Putin, saying “someone really wanted that I not take a step onto the territory of Russia” after he left following being poisoned.
“And we know why. The reason is the fear of one person sitting in a bunker,” Navalny said. “And he is afraid because I have caused him a mortal insult. I caused him a mortal insult by surviving.”
The sentence prompted immediate criticism from European countries and the United States, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issuing a statement calling for the immediate release of Navalny and those detained at recent protests.
Blinken said the proceedings “are a continuation of efforts to violate Mr. Navalny’s rights and suppress political pluralism.” He said the U.S. would work with its allies to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens.
Immediately following the ruling, Navalny’s supporters in Moscow called for people to protest on the city’s Manezh Square in front of the walls of the Kremlin, continuing a series of demonstrations taking place across the country since Navalny returned after being treated in Germany for the poisoning and was arrested in January.
Navalny’s arrest triggered protests by thousands of people across Russia for the past two weekends, despite a huge security clamp-down. On Sunday, 5,400 people were detained, the most during protests under Putin.
During the trial Tuesday, police sealed off several streets around the court and lines of helmeted riot officers swiftly detained anyone deemed a protester. After the sentencing, riot police began violently dispersing a crowd of protesters. Over 700 people have been detained Tuesday, according to a monitoring group, a number that appears to be growing.
Through the court hearing, Navalny laughed and smiled at his wife, Yulia, who was present.
Prosecutors argued that he had failed to check in twice a month with prison authorities as required by the terms of his suspended sentence for much of last year. This time included when he was comatose for three weeks after being exposed to a Novichok nerve agent in Siberia.
He asked the prison representative in court how he could have checked in while he was in a coma.
Navalny has blamed his poisoning on Putin, accusing members of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, of putting the nerve agent into his underwear.
“His main grievance against me is that he will go down in history as a poisoner,” Navalny said Tuesday. “You’ve got Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. And now we’ll have Vladimir the Underwear Poisoner.”
The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning, and on Tuesday spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin was not following the trial.
Navalny, 44, has been jailed briefly many times for his activism, but never for a lengthy period at a prison camp, something many observers believe the Kremlin had previously deemed not worth the potential political fallout.
Navalny was originally sentenced to prison time in 2014, but after an outcry and small protests in Moscow, law enforcement officials released him.
The decision to press ahead with jailing Navalny this time, despite a far greater outcry, suggests the Kremlin’s calculus has changed and it now views it as too dangerous to allow Navalny to remain free.
Since his return to Russia, Navalny’s team released a video alleging Putin secretly built a staggering luxury palace on the Black Sea. The investigation has been watched over 100 million times on YouTube and forced a rare comment from Putin denying he owns the palace. Pro-Kremlin media have since been allowed to tour the palace, and a childhood friend and former judo sparring partner of Putin, the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, over the weekend claimed he owned the building and intended to turn it into a hotel.
In his closing speech, Navalny told the judge he hoped people would not be scared by his imprisonment.
“It’s not difficult to jail me,” he said. “It’s a demonstration of weakness. It’s impossible to jail millions and hundreds of thousands of people. And when people realize that — and that moment will come — then all this will fall apart.”
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