(CN) – The repeated and targeted arrests of a prominent Vladimir Putin critic were aimed at “suppressing political pluralism” in Russia, the European Court of Human Rights found Thursday.
Based in Strasbourg, France, the EU rights court ruled that seven arrests of anti-Putin opposition leader Alexei Anatolyevich Navalny from 2012 to 2014 were politically motivated as defined by the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a partner.
“At the core of the applicant’s Article 18 complaint is his alleged persecution, not as a private individual, but as an opposition politician committed to playing an important public function through democratic discourse,” the court’s 67-page judgment states.
The ruling continues, “As such, the restriction in question would have affected not merely the applicant alone, or his fellow opposition activists and supporters, but the very essence of democracy as a means of organizing society, in which individual freedom may only be limited in the general interest, that is, in the name of a ‘higher freedom.’”
In the final, binding decision, the court’s grand chamber ordered the Kremlin to pay Navalny €63,000 – equal to $71,000 – in damages within three months for moral harm, material damages and court costs.
Immediately following the court’s reading of the judgment Thursday, Navalny called the ruling “genuine justice.”
“I’m very pleased with this ruling,” he told reporters after the hearing. “This ruling is very important not only for me but also for many people in Russia who face similar arrests on a daily basis.”
Navalny, a lawyer by training, has maintained that he was specifically and personally targeted by Russian authorities who acted to suppress political dissent.
Navalny was arrested on seven occasions between 2012 and 2014 at different demonstrations.
According to the court’s ruling, Navalny was one of the leaders of some protests he was arrested at but did not play a significant part in later demonstrations where he was also arrested.
He was fined five times, ranging from 1,000 to 30,000 Russian rubles, and was twice sentenced to administrative detention. All of his appeals in Russia were dismissed.
Navalny pointed out the importance of the European Court of Human Rights’ recognition of his claims for violations of Article 18, in which he alleged that his arrests, detention, and the administrative charges brought against him undermined his right to freedom of assembly, with a view to curtailing his political activity.
On Article 18 of the Convention on Human Rights, the EU court agreed that through Navalny’s repeated arrests and detention, the Russian government “had pursued an ulterior purpose,” which was to “suppress that political pluralism which forms part of ‘effective political democracy’ governed by ‘the rule of law’, both being concepts to which the preamble to the Convention refers.”
“There is converging contextual evidence corroborating the view that the authorities were becoming increasingly severe in their response to the conduct of the applicant, in the light of his position as opposition leader, and of other political activists and, more generally, in their approach to public assemblies of a political nature,” the ruling states.
At a hearing before the court in January, Russia’s Deputy Justice Minister Mikhail Galperin argued that Navalny’s arrests had been justified and that his unauthorized protests put public security at risk. Galperin also suggested that Navalny staged his arrests to garner media attention.
Navalny told reporters Thursday that he was happy to have “opened the road” for the European court’s recognition of Article 18, which he called “highly important” for Russians living under even more intense political pressure than he has faced.
Although Russia is obliged to carry out the court’s directive as a member of the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog, Navalny told reporters that he is doubtful Putin’s government will heed the decree.
“Do we have any cases where we can see that Russia respects European court or international law or something?” Navalny said in Strausbourg. “Of course I expect that Russia government will neglect these decisions and will explain the decision by the political motivations of the European court of course, as usual.”
Navalny mounted a grassroots presidential campaign last year before he was officially barred from running in this year’s election, which Putin overwhelmingly won.
Thursday’s ruling was delivered by a 17-judge panel.