A new trial against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny began Tuesday inside the penal colony outside Moscow where he is being held, after being arrested upon his return to Russia in January 2021.
A video link showed Navalny in prison uniform embracing his wife Yuliya Navalnaya for the first time in five months – while guards stood on either side of them – after she demanded access to the closed-door proceedings a day earlier.
The hearing, that has been widely condemned as a show trial, took place as Russia announced it was pulling back some of its forces near the Ukrainian border to their bases, in what would be the first major step towards de-escalation in weeks of crisis with the West.
Navalny’s supporters had claimed the trial was being held while attention was drawn by the growing crisis, which has seen Russia amass over 130,000 troops on its borders with Ukraine, and in Belarus.
He is currently serving a two-and-a-half year sentence in a maximum-security prison near Moscow, where the conditions are said to be dire. The new charges could see his time behind bars significantly extended.
In August, the dissident went on hunger strike over the conditions he has been held in which have caused him health problems, including severe back pain.
He repeated claims that his requests for medical assistance were being ignored by prison guards and that he was being ‘tortured’ with sleep deprivation with guards waking him up eight times a night. He also said other prisoners are being intimidated into not helping clean areas around his bed.
Navalny also warned he potentially faces being locked in solitary confinement after being accused of numerous minor infractions in prison.
The Russian opposition leader, who has now spent a year behind bars after surviving a poison attack that he blames on the Kremlin, is accused of fresh fraud charges.
If he is ultimately found guilty of embezzlement, Putin’s most prolific political opponent could be jailed until 2032.
A new trial against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny began Tuesday inside the penal colony outside Moscow where he is being held, serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence. A video link showed Navalny (pictured centre with his wife Yuliya Navalnaya via video link) showed him in a prison uniform at the hearing
A video link showed Navalny in prison uniform embracing his wife Yuliya Navalnaya for the first time in five months – while guards stood on either side of them – after she demanded access to the closed-door proceedings a day earlier
A photograph taken from a TV screen during live broadcast of the court hearing at the penal colony N2 shows Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny (left) speaking with his wife Yulia ahead of the court hearing
The video link also showed Navalny’s wife Yuliya Navalnaya inside the room where the trial is heard, a day after she had demanded access to the proceedings (pictured)
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, leaves the IK-2 male correctional facility after a court hearing, in the town of Pokrov in Vladimir Region, Russia February 15, 2022
Russian police officers guard the entrance to the penal colony N2, where Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is being held, to serve a two-and-a-half year prison term for violating parole, in the town of Pokrov on April 6, 2021
The hearing of Moscow’s Lefortovsky district court is taking place inside the maximum security prison where he is being held in Pokrov, 60 miles east of Moscow.
Yesterday, Yulia lashed out at Russian authorities on the eve of the trial after she learned she would not be able to attend.
‘Listen you, cowards and scoundrels! I demand that I am allowed to attend my husband’s trial,’ Yulia, 45, said on Instagram.
Family and journalists had been barred from the trial. The couple have been married for 20 years and have two children together.
Yulia said the new case is ‘so pathetic they are afraid to hold the trial in Moscow’. ‘My husband is an honest man. And they are keeping him in prison because he is not afraid of this government,’ Yulia added.
According to reports, Navalny and Yulia last saw each other in August, where they were permitted an extended visit for three days.
Amnesty International described the hearing as a ‘sham trial, attended by prison guards rather than the media.’
‘Aleksei Navalny was detained under politically motivated charges and should never have been imprisoned in the first place,’ the human rights organisation said in a statement on Monday.
‘Now, as the new trial starts, it’s obvious that the Russian authorities intend to ensure that Navalny doesn’t leave prison any time soon. A closed-door trial without public access only makes one more suspicious about new human rights violations the Russian authorities are trying to hide,’ the group said.
Amnesty also called on the trial to be made public.
The new fraud case against Navalny was launched in December 2020, while the 45-year-old was recovering in Germany after narrowly surviving a nerve agent poisoning while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow that year.
While being treated in Berlin, Navalny was put into a coma. He came out of it on September 7, and once he had recovered, decided to return to Russia on January 17, 2021 despite knowing he would be arrested.
Investigators accuse Navalny of stealing for personal use more than $4.7 million of donations that were given to his political organisations. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
A new trial against jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny began Tuesday inside the penal colony outside Moscow where he is held. A video link showed Navalny (pictured centre with his wife Yuliya Navalnaya via video link) in a prison uniform at the hearing
Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya lashed out at Russian authorities yesterday on the eve of his trial after she learned she would not be able to attend. ‘Listen you, cowards and scoundrels! I demand that I am allowed to attend my husband’s trial,’ Yulia, 45, said on Instagram. ‘My husband is an honest man. And they are keeping him in prison because he is not afraid of this government’ (Alexei and Yulia pictured September 2020)
Pictured: An Instagram post by Navalny showing the last time he saw his wife Yulia in August 2021
Russia returns some troops to base in areas near Ukraine
Some troops in Russia’s military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday.
Russia’s Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying that while large-scale drills across the country continued, some units of the Southern and Western military districts had completed their exercises.
The reported movements run counter to warnings from the United States and Britain that Russia may be poised to invade Ukraine at any time.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain would need to see a full-scale removal of Russian troops from the border with Ukraine to believe that Moscow has no plans for an invasion.
Video footage provided by the defence ministry and published by the RIA news agency showed some tanks and other armoured vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars.
The ministry said it would use trucks to move some hardware while some troops would march to bases on their own.
Russia has amassed over 130,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, including a large contingent on joint drills in Belarus until Feb. 20, meaning that Ukraine is almost encircled by the Russian military.
The start of the trial comes as talks over Ukraine between Russia and the West intensified, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the latest Western leader due in Moscow for talks with Putin.
Navalny allies have called on Scholz to bring up the fate of the politician in his talks with Putin later on Tuesday.
‘Germany stands for peace and justice,’ Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter. ‘And now its stance on this is more important than ever.’
‘The trial directly in jail of the number one political prisoner says everything about the Putin regime and the prospects of negotiations with him,’ she said.
Other supporters of Navalny have claimed the ‘open’ trial was deliberately organised at a time when most media attention is focused on the escalating tensions around Ukraine and amid fears of a Russian invasion.
The country has massed more than 130,000 troops on the borders with its neighbour, with Western intelligence warning an invasion could be ordered by Putin in the coming days. However, on Tuesday Russia announced that it would withdraw troops from the border in an apparent deescalation.
Maria Pevchikh, one of Navalny’s closest supporters and head of the investigative unit of the Anti-Corruption Foundation he created in 2011, also speculated on Twitter that a long-term sentence may give rise to another attempt on his life.
‘We should hope it’s just the trial they are disguising and distracting us from, not something worse. Which, again, is not that crazy to expect,’ Pevchikh wrote.
‘Putin did order to kill Navalny once and managed to get away with it. The line has been crossed. Nothing stops Putin from doing it again.’
In an extensive Twitter threat on Monday, Pevchikh said Putin could use the Ukraine crisis to distract the world’s media as he deals a major blow to Navalny, and in doing so, a major blow to the anti-Kremlin movement.
Navalny, 45, faces a special hearing inside the Pokrov prison where he is currently serving a two-and-a-half year sentence on fraud charges widely thought to be unfounded (Navalny pictured Feb 2021)
Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of the Russian jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends an opposition rally in Moscow, Russia, 21 April 2021
‘The key to saving Navalny’s life is constant uninterrupted attention. There isn’t a better moment for Putin to get rid of his main enemy than the moment when the world is looking elsewhere, at something he is doing with his other hand,’ she said.
The investigative journalist also described Navalny’s charges as ‘rubbish’ and declared ‘[Russian authorities] can’t even falsify charges because there’s nothing to pin them on. Navalny is innocent.’
Navalny’s poisoning and arrest sparked widespread condemnation abroad as well as sanctions from Western capitals.
Most commentators believe Navalny is innocent of the charges and accuse Russian authorities of manufacturing a case to silence the dissident’s criticism of President Putin.
Russian authorities last June branded Navalny’s political organisations ‘extremist’, prompting his team to shut down the regional network that supported his political campaigns and corruption investigations.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was set up by Navalny in 2001 and whose investigations are overseen by Pevchikh, was officially liquidated by the Moscow City Court.
In an interview with NBC News in June last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin refused guarantee Navalny will ever leave prison alive. He also said the opposition leader’s continued detention was not his decision, and noted the poor state of medical care inside Russia’s jails.
‘Look — such decisions in this country are not made by the president. They’re made by the court whether or not to set somebody free,’ Putin responded when questioned about whether Navalny will ever go free.
‘As far as the health, all individuals who are in prison, that is something that the administration of the specific prison or penitentiary establishment is responsible for,’ he added.
Putin also said Navalny would not be treated any differently from other prisoners.
‘He will not be treated any worse than anybody else. Nobody should be given any kind of special treatment,’ Putin said of the opposition leader, whose name he has refused to say, referring to him as ‘that person’.