(CN) — A Moscow judge ordered Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to serve more than 2 ½ years in prison on Tuesday over alleged parole violations, a decision certain to fuel more streets protests and harden international resolve to stand up to President Vladimir Putin.
The decision to lock up Navalny for two years and eight months is seen as the latest ploy by Putin's regime to silence the 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader viewed by many as Putin's most formidable political foe. There is the likelihood his imprisonment will embolden the opposition to Putin and turn Navalny into a martyr.
American and European leaders are condemning the treatment of Navalny and a harsh crackdown by Russian riot police on street protests. Western powers are considering the imposition of new sanctions and other forms of retaliation, including the cancellation of a major gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany, the Nord Stream 2.
Following his sentencing, a chorus of voices demanded his immediate release.
After the verdict, Navalny's team called on people to protest in front of the Kremlin. Throughout the day, police detained more than 300 Navalny supporters and tensions were high in Moscow with large numbers of police at hand.
“Don't be sad, everything will be fine,” Navalny told his wife Yulia after the verdict was read out, according to Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper.
In the past two weekends, about 10,000 people were detained at rallies in dozens of Russian cities where people showed both support for Navalny and a deepening anger over what many see as a corrosive level of corruption within Putin's regime.
Navalny became an international cause celebre after he survived an alleged attempt by Russian intelligence services to kill him with a Soviet-era nerve agent last August. After the poisoning, Putin allowed Navalny, who was in a coma, to be transported to Germany for treatment. While undergoing treatment in Germany, Navalny missed parole hearings in connection with a suspended 3 ½ sentence for a 2014 embezzlement conviction. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to a penal colony, as Russian prisons are called, for violating the terms of his parole.
But the embezzlement case against Navalny and his brother, Oleg, was deemed politically motivated and in 2017 the European Court of Human Rights found the trial against them was unfair.
On Jan. 17, Navalny returned to Russia from Germany, a bold move to challenge Putin. Upon his arrival at a Moscow airport, he was immediately arrested and jailed.
Since his return, he has stepped up his campaign against Putin by releasing a damning two-hour video investigation into an alleged $1.3 billion mansion and estate Putin is building for himself on the Black Sea with bribe money.
In a rare concession that Navalny even exists, Putin publicly denied the allegations. Navalny's investigation alleged the mansion includes a casino, strip club and extravagant Italian-made toilet brushes worth $850.
Navalny used Tuesday's court hearing as a platform to condemn Putin in a fiery 16-minute speech.
“Someone did not want me to take a single step on my country’s territory as a free man,” he told the court. “And we know who and we know why – the hatred and fear of one man, living in a bunker, whom I offended by surviving when he tried to have me killed.”
He continued, “His only method is killing people. However much he pretends to be a great geopolitician, he’ll go into history as a poisoner.”
The judge tried to stop him from politicizing the hearing.
“This isn’t a political rally,” the judge said at one point. “Let’s not do politics here.”
Navalny, who is a lawyer by training, accused the court system of seeking to lock him up and “in this process is to intimidate a huge number of people, this is how it works.”
“They are putting one person behind bars to scare millions,” he told the court, according to The Moscow Times, an English language newspaper. “I really hope that this process will be perceived as... a sign of weakness. … You can't put millions and hundreds of thousands in jail – and I hope people will begin to realize that. Once they do – and this moment will come – you won't be able to jail everyone.”
Navalny was granted credit for serving 10 months under house arrest during the embezzlement trial and thus was ordered to serve out the remaining two years and eight months in prison.
Prosecutors accused Navalny of repeatedly violating the terms of his probation, including not checking in with prison officials even before he was poisoned in Siberia last August. Navalny denied that and said he checked in as required twice a month.
Navalny's lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, argued that prison authorities knew about his whereabouts when he was flown to Germany after his poisoning.
“I was in a coma, then I was in the ICU,” Navalny told a lawyer for Russia's prison service. “I sent you medical documents; you had my address and contacts. What else could I have done to tell you where I am? I have a lawyer and my lawyer has a telephone... how could I have informed you better?”
Western diplomats condemned Navalny's treatment.
Antony Blinken, the Biden administration nominee for secretary of state, said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about Russia's actions against Navalny.
“We reiterate our call for his immediate and unconditional release as well as the release of all those wrongfully detained for exercising their rights,” he said in a tweet.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the verdict “a bitter blow against fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Russia.” He too demanded Navalny's release. British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab called the court's decision “perverse” and “shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community.”
Russia hit back and accused Western diplomats of interfering in Russia's domestic affairs by appearing at the court hearing. Interfax, a Russian news agency, said diplomats from the Czech Republic, Austria, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Latvia and Poland were present at the hearing, as were officials with the European Union.
Their presence drew a strong rebuke from Russia's Foreign Ministry. Maria Zakharova, the ministry's spokeswoman, called it “the self-incrimination of the West's unsightly and illegal attempts to contain Russia” and said the presence of the diplomats was an attempt to put "psychological pressure on the judge.”
The Kremlin said Putin was not following the hearing and that it did not want Navalny's fate to damage relations with the EU.
“We hope that such nonsense as linking the prospects of Russia-EU relations with the resident of a detention center will not happen,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
The EU's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, is expected to meet with Russian officials later this week.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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