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EU leaders condemn Russia's jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny

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Navalny is awaiting a ruling on whether he should serve his sentence in jail
Navalny is awaiting a ruling on whether he should serve his sentence in jail   -   Copyright  AP/Moscow City Court
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Leaders from the EU and beyond have spoken out after Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed for two years and eight months on Tuesday.

The 44-year-old anti-corruption investigator, who is Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic, was handed a 3.5-year sentence by a Moscow court for violating terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from being poisoned.

He will serve a little less when taking into account his 10 months of house arrest.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter that she condemned "the sentencing of Alexei Navalny in the strongest possible terms".

"I call on Russia to comply with its international commitments and release him immediately and unconditionally," she added.

Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, doubled down on this call, saying the sentencing "runs counter Russia’s international commitments on rule of law & fundamental freedoms" and "goes against the verdict of #ECHR (European Court of Human Rights), which ruled this case arbitrary and unreasonable".

While European Council President Charles Michel tweeted: “We do not accept his sentence - justice must not be politicized. Protesters have the right to demonstrate peacefully and voice their political views.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called for the opposition leader's release and added the verdict was "far from any rule of law standards", in a tweet by her official spokesman.

France's President Macron called Navalny's jailing "unacceptable". "Political disagreement is never a crime. We call for his immediate release. Respect for human rights, like respect for democratic freedom, is non-negotiable," he wrote on Twitter.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote that Navalny's "decision to return to Russia after being poisoned was a truly brave and selfless act".

"In contrast, today's ruling was pure cowardice and fails to meet the most basic standards of justice," he added.

How did events unfold in court?

Standing in the defendant's box, Navalny stayed relatively still throughout the lengthy court proceedings. He took his hands from his pockets on one occasion, however, to outline a heart on the glass as a message to his wife.

Navalny was arrested on January 17 as he arrived home in Russia, having spent five months in Germany recovering from being poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent. The Kremlin critic maintains it was an attack authorised by the Russian president himself, whereas Russian authorities altogether deny the claim, and say there is no proof a poisoning took place. This is despite European lab tests finding otherwise.

Watch footage from the court as Navalny is sentenced

As the judge read out the sentencing on Tuesday, Navalny's team said it was gathering on Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow, a short distance from the Kremlin, to protest the outcome.

"We are waiting for you," the team said in a tweet, encouraging others to join. "Our country has plunged into complete lawlessness. We must confront this."

Earlier in the day, Navalny criticised the legal proceedings, telling the Simonovsky District Court that the aim of his hearing was "to scare a great number of people". He added: "They jail one man to scare millions."

The probation conditions that were allegedly violated were related to a suspended sentence dating back to 2014 over a conviction for money laundering - a charge Navalny has rejected as being politically motivated.

His defence team also argued their client could not register in person with Russian authorities (something required by the probation order) while he was in hospital in Germany, and have said his rights were violated during his arrest.

His subsequent imprisonment was then described as a travesty of justice.

The two weekends following Navalny's arrest have also resulted in tens of thousands of people across Russia taking part in protests to demand his release.

With many chanting slogans against Putin, police eventually detained more than 5,750 people on Sunday alone, with more than 1,900 detentions reported in Moscow. These figures are unprecedented in post-Soviet times.

Most of those arrested were later released after being handed court summons - and will now face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Others are looking at more serious criminal convictions for alleged violence against police.

Navalny's wife, Yulia, was one such person arrested during a protest in Moscow on January 23, and was ordered on Monday to pay a fine of around €219 for attending the unauthorised rally.

Thousands of protesters demanding Navalny's release were arrested last weekend

Intervention in domestic affairs?

The Russian government has accused Western countries of stoking the unrest after embassies in Moscow posted maps of the first demonstration calling on their nationals to steer clear of them because of likely violence.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Tuesday that the presence of foreign diplomats at Navalny's court hearing was proof of the "West's attempts to deter Russia."

"This is no longer just an intervention in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state," she added in a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, Sergei Lavrov reiterated claims that Western countries have failed to give Moscow the laboratory evidence that Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent during a press conference with his Swedish counterpart on Tuesday morning.

In comments reported by the TASS agency, he said Western countries "themselves do not want to be transparent in the conclusions that they use to promote an anti-Russian position.

After his arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin.

The video has been viewed over 100 million times, fueling discontent as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn and the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video, and his long time confidant, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, claimed that he owned the mansion.

As part of efforts to quash the protests, the authorities have targeted Navalny’s associates and activists across the country.

His brother Oleg, top ally Lyubov Sobol and several others were put under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges of violating coronavirus restrictions.

The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.

Russia has dismissed the comments from foreign officials as interfering in its domestic affairs.