Alexei Navalny, the main opposition figurehead in Russia and the most high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin, has been jailed by a court in Moscow for three-and-a-half years.
Appearing in court in a glass cage, the 44-year-old was told he would serve two-and-a-half years in a penal colony, reflecting a year already spent under house arrest.
The sentencing marks the end of the first stage of a whirlwind period in Russia since Navalny returned home last month. When he was arrested upon his return, having spent months recovering in Germany from a suspected assassination attempt he blamed Putin for ordering, his supporters staged mass street protests in cities across the country.
The sentence, like most things connected to Navalny, is complicated and, according to his supporters, entirely politically-motivated.
Navalny was originally given a suspended sentence in 2014 connected to embezzlement charges that he said were trumped up. According to prosecutors in today’s hearing – who, to nobody’s surprise, the judge sided with – Navalny had violated the terms of his probation conditions related to that 2014 sentence by not informing police of his whereabouts over the last several months.
But as an incredulous Navalny pointed out in court, he had spent the last five months recovering in Germany after surviving an alleged nerve agent attack, including some time in a coma.
"I fell into a coma, then came round, left hospital, contacted my lawyer and sent you a document stating where I was,” he said in court today. “Of course I wasn’t at home! What more could I do?"
At another point in the hearing, Navalny, a lawyer by trade, labelled Putin a “thieving man in his bunker”, a reference to a video investigation released by Navalny’s team into the opulent palace where the Russian president has safely hunkered down during the pandemic. The video currently has more than 100 million views on YouTube. "He'll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner," Navalny said of Putin.
Navalny’s full remarks in court have been translated into English by Meduza, an independent Russian news site based in Latvia.
Putin has taken the same approach with Navalny as he commonly takes with critics, insisting that his influence in Russia is small and given oversized importance by the West. But Navalny’s return home has clearly spooked the Kremlin, experts told VICE World News.
Ahead of today’s sentencing hearing, tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the weekend to demand Navalny’s release, with one monitoring group saying police made more than 5,000 arrests.
With Navalny now out of the picture until at least late 2023, it remains to be seen whether the biggest public show of dissent in Russia in recent years fizzles out, or takes on new impetus.