Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been sent to prison a day after returning to his home country, triggering condemnation from western powers and calls for sanctions from several EU member states.
His detention came despite demands from the US and the EU that Moscow release Mr Navalny, and calls from two EU member states for the bloc to impose sanctions if the Russian dissident was not swiftly released.
Mr Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, 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 the Soviet-developed nerve agent novichok.
The attempt on his life last August 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.
As supporters chanted his name outside the police station where he was held overnight — and where a makeshift court had been hastily assembled on Monday afternoon — a judge remanded Mr Navalny in custody for 30 days, pending a second court appearance next month. He faces a potential three-and-a-half year jail sentence for breaching the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 fraud conviction.
Mr Navalny’s lawyer was informed of the impromptu court hearing just minutes before it began, and only two Kremlin-friendly media organisations were allowed to observe it.
The 44-year-old activist’s incarceration is likely to further sour relations between Moscow and the west and could spark demonstrations inside Russia.
In a video published after the sentencing, Mr Navalny called on his supporters to take to the streets of Russia on Saturday, describing protest rallies as what the authorities “fear the most.”
“Don’t be scared,” he said. “Come out on the streets: not for me but for yourselves and your future”.
Russia’s prison service had requested his jailing ahead of a court hearing set for February 2, where it will argue that Mr Navalny’s suspended sentence should be converted to jail time after he failed to appear for meetings mandated under the terms of the 2014 conviction.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the 2014 conviction was politically motivated.
“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. “The old man in the bunker is so afraid of everything that the criminal code has been defiantly ripped up and thrown away 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, Estonia and Latvia on Monday urged fellow EU member states to impose sanctions against Russia should Mr Navalny remain in jail.
“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.
Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, condemned the “kangaroo court” decision to detain Mr Navalny for 30 days.
“Russia is again violating its international obligations,” he wrote on Twitter. “Latvia calls on Council of Europe and relevant international organisations to interfere, we also must discuss this in EU [foreign affairs council] and initiate new sanctions against Russia.”
The EU said it was following developments in the case. The European bloc could discuss its reaction to Mr Navalny’s arrest at a video summit of EU leaders on Thursday and a meeting of foreign ministers next week.
In the US, both Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, denounced 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.
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 countermeasures 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 move to pursue wider-ranging penalties would 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 were only reluctant supporters.
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.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and James Shotter in Warsaw
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