A jail term for Navalny could silence him for years and make it tough for his team to maintain momentum in national protests against President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Navalny appeared in the glass cage of the defendant’s dock at Moscow City Court wearing a navy hoodie and initially looking nervous.
Navalny’s wife Yulia, who was detained at protests Sunday, waved at her husband in the courtroom and he joked, “I saw you on TV in my cell. They say that you are constantly violating public order. Bad girl! But I’m proud of you.”
The Kremlin has dismissed the alarm among U.S. and European leaders over his near-fatal August poisoning with a nerve agent similar to the Soviet-era Novichok. Russia refused to open a criminal case, and it has suggested that if Navalny was indeed poisoned, it could have happened in Germany.
Navalny said the penal service was “deceiving everybody” in its claims he failed to meet his probation obligations, stating he was in coma after his near-fatal poisoning in August and then he was being treated in Germany. He said he sent documents to the penal service informing them of his whereabouts.
“Can you explain to me how I could have fulfilled my obligations better? First I was unconscious, then conscious. Then I started to learn how to walk again. What more could I do?”
“The president on live television said that thanks to him I was sent to Germany,” Navalny told penal service representative Alexander Yermolin. “So you didn’t know where I was? Captain don’t you respect Vladimir Vadimirovich Putin?”
At times during the hearing, he looked at his wife and smiled.
Outside the court, hundreds of Navalny’s supporters crowded the sidewalks, two days after riot police used batons and stun guns to violently disperse protests in dozens of cities, arresting a record 5,000 people, including dozens of journalists.
Police blocked access to the court with metal barricades and dozens of riot police lined the streets as mounted units patrolled the area. Police detained more than 230 of Navalny’s supporters outside the court.
“What’s happening to Alexei now is beyond all limits,” said Eduard Mikhalevich, 37, a social worker who never joined any protest until Jan. 23, when he joined tens of thousands of protesting Russians in more than 100 cities calling for Navalny’s freedom. He also protested Sunday and Tuesday.
“I came here because I want to support a citizen of my motherland. He is trying to defend all our rights and the powers are pressuring him and they’re showing us where our place is: in the corner,” he said, adding that he was afraid of police violence and being detained but, “my feeling of fury made me protest.”
“I am quite scared but if we are going to be afraid and stay at home the situation will just get even worse. Fear is such a humiliating feeling and I have lived with this feeling all these years and I cannot lie with it any more.”
He added that jailing Navalny would just lead to more protests and the huge police deployment showed how frightened the authorities were.
Shortly after the interview Mikhalevich was detained by riot police.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned the many diplomats observing the case not to interfere with Russian domestic affairs. He said Moscow would ignore the patronizing statements of Western leaders on the case.
The Kremlin said that the crackdown was appropriate and that the protests were led by “hooligans and provocateurs.” It warned Western governments to stay out of Russia’s internal affairs.
But a new protest generation — largely young people, many of whom have never protested before — appears to have shaken the Kremlin, with Putin’s popularity among people ages 18 to 24 slumping from 36 percent to 20 percent since the end of 2019, according to December polling by the Levada polling agency.
Navalny has been exposing government corruption for more than a decade, but his latest effort, a viral video titled “Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Largest Bribe,” which has garnered more than 106 million views on YouTube, appears to have struck a nerve with the Kremlin. Its allegation that a vast palace was built for Putin on the Black Sea undercuts the president’s image as a conservative traditionalist with the nation’s interests at heart.
Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch under U.S. sanctions as a member of Putin’s inner circle, says that he has owned the palace for two years and that it will become a hotel.
Navalny’s national network of 40 regional headquarters and his ability to communicate directly with Russians through his popular YouTube channel make him a potent threat to the regime. His decision to fly home to Russia after being poisoned, knowing that he faced a likely jail term, has captured the imaginations of many young Russians and drawn an outpouring of support from celebrities, actors, writers, sports figures and bloggers.
Facing crucial parliamentary elections in September — the first election since the Kremlin engineered constitutional changes in July allowing Putin to potentially rule until 2036 — authorities seem determined to preemptively crush Navalny and his opposition movement.
Since Navalny’s return on Jan. 17, police have detained opposition activists in cities and towns across the country, leveling charges of inciting protests or breaching coronavirus restrictions.
A raft of new laws makes it harder to protest, express dissent online or expose corruption by members of Russia’s security services and bureaucracy.
State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin on Monday foreshadowed another law, this one making it a crime to call for international sanctions against Russian citizens, and warned of tough penalties. The law seems targeted at Navalny and the London-based director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, Vladimir Ashurkov, who wrote to President Biden and European leaders calling for tough sanctions on oligarchs and other key figures benefiting from Russia’s corrupt system.
Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he had been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation for nearly five months. The penal service complained that his absence violated the terms of his suspended sentence, but Navalny attorney Vadim Kobzev told the court Tuesday Navalny was undergoing rehabilitation until Jan. 15.
Kobzev said Navalny had correctly notified the penal service and police that he was out of the country and could not appear at police stations.
“The whole country, the whole world knew where he was,” he said.
Navalny and his brother, Oleg, were convicted in 2014 of embezzling about $500,000 from 2008 to 2012 in a case that involved their use of a subcontractor in a logistics deal to transport goods for two companies, MPK and Yves Rocher Vostok. Both were convicted and sentenced to 3½ years in jail. Oleg Navalny served his term, while his brother’s sentence was suspended, although he served a year of house arrest.