March 9. 2021. 12:02

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Russia jails Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny for 30 days

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to 30 days in jail a day after returning to the country, following threats from EU member states to impose new sanctions against Moscow if he was not released.

Mr Navalny was detained by police at Moscow’s main airport on Sunday evening after returning from Germany where he had recovered from an assassination attempt involving use of a nerve agent from the novichok group.

The attempt on his life in August last year was blamed on the Kremlin and sparked widespread condemnation from western governments. Moscow denied any involvement and has suggested Mr Navalny could have been poisoned outside Russia.

The anti-corruption campaigner, who has emerged as president Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic, was found guilty of breaching the terms of a suspended sentence on Monday by a hastily assembled makeshift court set up in the police station where he was held overnight, according to his lawyer.

The decision to jail the 44-year-old came despite demands from the US and the EU to release him, and calls from two EU member states for the bloc to impose new sanctions against Moscow.

Russia’s prison service had requested he be remanded in custody pending another court hearing set for January 29th, where it will argue that Mr Navalny failed to appear for meetings mandated under a suspended sentence from a 2014 fraud conviction. That court could decide to convert the three-and-a-half year sentence to jail time.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the 2014 conviction was politically motivated.

‘Lawlessness’

“It is impossible, what is happening here is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Mr Navalny said in a video filmed as the hearing began and posted on Twitter by his spokesperson. “They just defiantly tore up the criminal code and threw into the trash.”

Mr Navalny’s supporters say his arrest is designed to prevent him from campaigning ahead of critical parliamentary elections in September, with Mr Putin’s ruling party polling at record lows.

Lithuania and Estonia on Monday urged fellow EU member states to impose sanctions should Mr Navalny not be swiftly released.

The two Baltic countries raised the matter at a regular meeting of the bloc’s foreign and Europe ministers, diplomats told the Financial Times, in line with a similar public statement they and their neighbour Latvia made after Mr Navalny was detained on Sunday while passing through passport control.

“It seems that Navalny, who dared to challenge the government, has made another most unfortunate mistake. He has survived,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.

The EU could discuss its reaction to Mr Navalny’s arrest at a pre-scheduled video summit of EU leaders on Thursday and a meeting of foreign ministers next week.

Both Mike Pompeo, the outgoing US secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, condemned the arrest and called for Mr Navalny’s release.

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” Mr Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

‘Rule of law’

Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, demanded Mr Navalny be released and said the accusation of breaching the terms of his suspended sentence “violates the principles of the rule of law”.

“The Russian authorities have arrested the victim of an assassination attempt using chemical weapons, not the perpetrators,” he told reporters in Berlin.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials over their alleged involvement in Mr Navalny’s poisoning. It could add other targeted counter-measures against Russian individuals and institutions.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said “a quick and unequivocal response at EU level is essential”, while Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, said he would “propose a discussion on possible sanctions”.

But any proposal for wider-ranging sanctions on Russia would be likely to be more contentious, given internal EU divisions over how to deal with the Kremlin. The bloc imposed economic countermeasures after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although some member states are reluctant supporters of them.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, described Mr Navalny’s detention as “unacceptable” and called for his immediate release.

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, echoed that view: “Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he added.

But Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said western criticism of Mr Navalny’s detention was to “divert attention” from a crisis in liberal democracy.

“We can see how they have jumped at yesterday’s news about Navalny’s return to Russia, and we can see how gladly the comments, which replicate one another, are being made,” he told reporters on Monday. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021