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'Stalinist' sentence, as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny jailed for 19 more years

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears on a screen set up at a courtroom of the Moscow City Court.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears on a screen set up at a courtroom of the Moscow City Court. Copyright ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP or licensors
Copyright ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP or licensors
By Euronews with Agencies
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Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to refer to Alexei Navalny by name even, typically calling him "that gentleman".

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A Russian court convicted imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny of extremism charges and sentenced him to an additional 19 years in prison Friday. 

Navalny is already serving a nine-year term on a variety of charges that he says were politically motivated.

The new charges against the politician relate to the activities of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation and statements by his top associates.

Amid the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed a wave of unprecedented repression of dissent, reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Almost all major opponents have now been thrown into prison or driven into exile. Thousands of ordinary citizens have also been prosecuted for denouncing the conflict, some receiving heavy sentences.

After the sentencing, a tweet posted on Navalny's account called on Russians to resist Vladimir Putin's regime:

"The sentencing figure is not for me. It is for you. You, not me, are being frightened and deprived of the will to resist. You are being forced to surrender your country of Russia without a fight to the gang of traitors, thieves, and scoundrels who have seized power. Putin must not achieve his goal. Do not lose the will to resist."

A longtime opponent of the Russian president, Navalny was hounded by the authorities before the Ukraine invasion, but his fate has worsened since.

He was imprisoned on his return to Russia at the beginning of 2021, after surviving an assassination attempt by poisoning he attributes to the Russian security services. 

He has since been sentenced twice on charges his supporters say are trumped up. 

Navalny, regularly placed in solitary confinement and faced with health problems, said on Thursday he expected a "long, Stalinist sentence".

"The formula to calculate it is simple: what the prosecutor asked for, minus 10-15%. They asked for 20 years, they will give 18 or something like that," he said in an online message conveyed by his relatives. 

International reaction

Posting on Twitter, the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Navalny was sentenced for "legitimate political and anti-corruption activities", and said the verdict "demonstrates the continued instrumentalisation of the Russian legal system". 

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also took to Twitter to condemn what he called a "sham trial" and praise Navaly's "courage to speak critically against the Kremlin". 

Both Michel and Borrell reiterated the EU's call for Navaly's immediate and unconditional release.  

The US State Department joined them in that call and condemned Navalny's new sentence as “an unjust conclusion to an unjust trial”. 

“For years, the Kremlin has attempted to silence Navalny and prevent his calls for transparency and accountability from reaching the Russian people”, it said. “By conducting this latest trial in secret and limiting his lawyers’ access to purported evidence, Russian authorities illustrated yet again both the baselessness of their case and the lack of due process afforded to those who dare to criticize the regime”.

United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk said Navalny’s new sentence “raises renewed serious concerns about judicial harassment and instrumentalisation of the court system for political purposes in Russia” and called for his release.

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Navalny made a name for himself investigating corruption in Putin's circle. 

Many outside Russia came to know him from the Oscar-winning, self-titled documentary based on the events related to his poisoning with a nerve agent in Russia and the subsequent investigation in 2020. 

However, he is criticised by some for statements seen as "racist" and "imperialistic" made in the past. 

His Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) was effectively banned in 2021 for "extremism".

The 45-year-old lawyer turned blogger has become a fierce critic of Russia's war in Ukraine, railing against the conflict from his prison cell. 

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During his trial, he mocked the "tens of thousands of dead in the most stupid and senseless war of the 21st century".

"Sooner or later (Russia) will recover. And it depends on us what it will rely on in the future," he added.

The Kremlin presents Navalny as a simple criminal, trying to separate legal proceedings from politics. 

Navalny is able to bring messages to the outside world through his lawyers. He often recounts prison life and denounces, usually ironically, the harassment he suffers. 

He claims to have been sent into solitary confinement 17 times, where he was forced to listen to speeches by Putin.

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The Russian president refuses to refer to him by name even to this day, typically calling him "that gentleman". 

The conditions of Navalny's detention could worsen further following Friday's verdict. Prosecutors have called for his transfer to a penal colony with a "special regime". 

These prisons have a sinister reputation in Russia and are usually reserved for the most dangerous criminals and lifers.

Navalny's legal marathon also risks not stopping on Friday. He is also being prosecuted for "terrorism" in another case. Few details are known at this stage but he risks life in prison.

'Optimistic spirit'

The politician is currently serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison — Penal Colony No. 6 in the town of Melekhovo, about 230 kilometres east of Moscow.

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He has spent months in a tiny one-person cell, also called a “punishment cell,” for purported disciplinary violations, such as an alleged failure to button his prison clothes properly, introduce himself appropriately to a guard or to wash his face at a specified time.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh told The Associated Press said prison officials once again placed Navalny in the punishment cell right after his closing arguments in late July and that he was released from it only on Friday for the verdict hearing.

On social media, Navalny's associates urged supporters to come to Melekhovo on Friday to express solidarity with the politician.

About 40 supporters from different Russian cities gathered outside the colony, one of them told the AP in the messaging app Telegram. Yelena, who spoke on condition that her last name was withheld for safety reasons, said the supporters weren't allowed into the colony but decided to stay outside until the verdict was announced: “People think it's important to be nearby at least like that, for moral support. We will be waiting."

Navalny was ordered to serve the new prison term in a “special regime” penal colony, a term that refers to the Russian prisons with the highest level of security and the harshest inmate restrictions.

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It wasn't immediately clear when he would be transferred to such a colony from the Melekhovo prison. Yarmysh said Navalny's lawyers will definitely appeal the verdict, so it will not take effect until the appeal is ruled on.

Russian law stipulates that only men given life sentences or “especially dangerous recidivists" are sent to those types of prisons.

The country has many fewer “special regime” colonies compared to other types of adult prisons, according to state penitentiary service data: 35 colonies for “dangerous recidivists” and six for men imprisoned for life. Maximum-security colonies are the most widespread type, with 251 currently in operation.

Still, Navalny is “always in this optimistic spirit," Yarmysh said. “It seems to me that he is probably the biggest optimist among all of us,” she added. “This happens because Alexei is absolutely convinced in what he's doing and confident that he is right. This, of course, helps him cope with everything and continue doing what he does.”

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