Russia’s prosecution service has urged a Moscow court to sentence opposition leader Alexei Navalny to three-and-a-half years in prison in a case widely seen as an attempt to neutralise President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic.
In a tense hearing in Moscow’s Simonovsky court on Tuesday that intermittently descended into bouts of quarrelling between the legal teams, prosecutors alleged that Mr Navalny, 44, had violated the terms of a suspended sentence for fraud he received in 2014 by not immediately returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from a nerve agent poisoning last autumn.
The presiding judge suspended the hearing at 11am GMT for two hours, pausing a session in which Mr Navalny argued he was unable to attend mandatory judicial meetings while ill because he was incapacitated.
“I was in a coma,” Mr Navalny, who sat in a glass cage inside the courtroom, said in a raised voice when prosecutors accused him of “hiding” from them in Berlin. “On what grounds are you saying you didn’t know where I was? You’re misleading the court,” he added.
As Mr Navalny and his lawyers engaged in at times aggressive and testy arguments with prosecutors in room 635 of the Moscow city courthouse, police outside arrested 237 of his supporters who had gathered to protest against his detention, according to OVD-Info, an NGO that tracks arrests.
Mr Navalny’s arrest immediately after he flew back to Moscow last month sparked the biggest protests in modern Russian history. The demonstrations in more than 120 cities nationwide tapped into popular anger about corruption, injustice and plunging living standards. Police have arrested more than 10,000 protesters over the past two weekends.
The anti-corruption activist claims the charges against him are Mr Putin’s revenge for surviving the poisoning — which he and several western governments have blamed on the Kremlin.
Mr Navalny’s detention demonstrates the Kremlin’s increasing resolve to clamp down on dissent. Although constitutional changes last year potentially allow Mr Putin to extend his 20-year rule until 2036, his ratings have approached record lows among Russians unhappy with stagnant real incomes and the Kremlin’s handling of the coronavirus emergency.
In that time, Mr Navalny has used his large online following to bypass a near-total media blackout and mobilise his supporters against Mr Putin. A video he released the day after his arrest detailing a lavish $1.3bn palace on the Black Sea allegedly built for Mr Putin has racked up more than 100m views on YouTube.
Mr Putin has said the palace does not belong to him or any of his family members.
Mr Navalny also faces up to 10 years in prison on separate charges of embezzling from his foundation, which he denies.