A Russian court sentenced Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, to nine years in a maximum-security prison on Tuesday, deepening Russia’s crackdown on dissent as it continues to fight a devastating war in Ukraine.
The court — set up in the IK-2 prison in Pokrov, 100km outside Moscow, where the jailed anti-corruption activist is already serving a two and a half year sentence for parole violations — found Navalny guilty of fraud and contempt of court, charges he alleged were politically motivated.
Navalny’s supporters worry the new sentence will all but isolate him from the outside world after his messages posted on social media through his lawyers, and broadsides against Putin during the trial, made him one of Russia’s most prominent antiwar voices.
In his final speech to the court last week, Navalny accused the Kremlin of launching the case to silence him and urged Russians to protest against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They can’t jail everyone. You could ask to give me 113 years — you won’t scare me or those like me,” Navalny said. “Russia’s a big country with a lot of people and not all of them are ready to give up their future and their children’s future in as cowardly a way as you have.”
Police immediately arrested Navalny, 45, when he returned to Russia from Germany last year after recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. He was convicted of parole violations after failing to appear for meetings mandated under the terms of a 2014 fraud conviction that he said was politically motivated.
Navalny is serving his earlier sentence in the notoriously harsh prison colony in Pokrov, where he has accused guards of abuse and former inmates have said fellow convicts were offered bribes to psychologically torture him.
Moscow then banned his Anti-Corruption Foundation for “extremism,” a designation that equated it to terror and neo-Nazi groups. Navalny’s team dismantled his nationwide network of offices and dozens of his supporters fled the country.
In an unusual move, the latest trial was held in the prison itself, a move officials explained as a Covid-19 safety measure but that Navalny said was designed to limit news about it leaking out.
Prosecutors have accused Navalny of stealing Rbs2m ($19,000) in donations to the foundation, including on two occasions while he was already in prison.
Two prosecution witnesses retracted their testimony in court. One of them later fled the country and said investigators had threatened to compel him to testify against Navalny.
Journalists were barred from making any recordings in the courtroom and watched proceedings on a video feed.
During Navalny’s final speech, the stream from the court frequently cut out.
It went dead just as he was about to quote the novelist Lev Tolstoy, according to Navalny’s team, saying: “Despotism creates war and war supports despotism. Those who want to fight against war should only fight against despotism.”