Russian opposition leader Navalny in court facing jail term as Putin battles dissent

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) – A Moscow court is deciding whether to jail Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for as long as 3 1/2 years, as President Vladimir Putin seeks to crush resurgent protests against his rule.

The district court is to rule Tuesday (Feb 1) on demands by penal authorities and prosecutors that Navalny, 44, serve time instead of the suspended sentence he received for a 2014 fraud conviction, for alleged violations of his probation. Security outside the court was heavy, with riot police detaining protesters around the court as Navalny’s supporters gathered outside.

A prison van brought the Kremlin critic to the court from the Moscow jail where he has been held. Navalny stood in the glass defendant’s cage in the courtroom, clad in a blue sweater and jeans. He joked with his wife, Yulia, sitting in the front row, about her detentions at protests since his arrest.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

The activist was detained in mid-January as he returned from Germany, where he recovered from a near-fatal nerve-agent attack that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s security services. A prison term could sideline Navalny but risks escalating the confrontation between the authorities and opposition protesters.

Western Appeals Police detained thousands at rallies in support of Navalny in dozens of cities nationwide over the last two weekends, some of the largest anti-Kremlin protests in years.

The US and the European Union have called on Russia to release Navalny and western diplomats attended Tuesday’s hearing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the detention “profoundly disturbing” in an interview on Sunday. The EU’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, has said he’ll raise the case when he visits Moscow for talks this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Riot police were accused of using electric-shock devices against some people at the latest protests on Sunday amid allegations of a particularly harsh response. There were 5,754 detentions, adding to nearly 3,600 at Jan 23 protests, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group. Navalny received the suspended sentence in a fraud trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher that also led to a 3 1/2 year jail term for his younger brother, Oleg.

Both men denied wrongdoing, and the European Court of Human Rights has called the case politically motivated. As well as the threat of a jail term , Navalny also faces possible new fraud charges that could carry an additional 10-year punishment.

Putin, 68, has been in power since 2000, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In July, he pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to stay as president until 2036. Last year his support fell to a record low amid the Covid-19 downturn, and the continuing slide in incomes is weighing on the Russian leader’s popularity, pollsters say.

Gross domestic product contracted 3.1 per cent last year, the biggest slump since 2009, the Federal Statistics Service reported Monday. Still, Russia suffered a smaller decline than most major economies after the government opted not to reimpose a lockdown in the second half of the year. Navalny raised the focus on officials’ opulent lifestyles in a video released after his arrest that got more than 100 million views and alleged that Putin owns a giant US$1.3 billion (S$1.73 billion) Black Sea palace.

Putin dismissed the claim and a billionaire ally, Arkady Rotenberg, said last week that he is the beneficial owner of the residence. While Putin has survived several past outbursts of anti-Kremlin protests, the opposition is digging in for a long-term struggle ahead of 2024, when he must decide whether to seek a fifth presidential term. Backers of Navalny say he’ll become a potent symbol of resistance behind bars.

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