Russian court orders Navalny held for 30 days

By Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko

A judge ordered Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to be jailed for 30 days, pending a trial, after a rushed court hearing Monday inside a police station, in an extraordinary move by Russian authorities.

A lawyer for Navalny, Vadim Kobzev, said he was notified of the hearing minutes before it started. According to a letter he posted online, the hearing was to take place not in a courtroom but at the police station in Khimki, where Navalny had been held since his arrest at a Moscow airport the previous evening.

Several hours after the hearing began, Kobzev said that Navalny had been ordered jailed until Feb. 15, pending trial on charges of violating the terms of an earlier suspended prison sentence.

Russia’s judicial system is not independent, but it usually aims to preserve the veneer of procedural impartiality in cases against opposition figures. On Monday, however, authorities seemed to be doing all they could to keep Navalny’s supporters off balance by processing his case at breakneck speed.

Photographs posted by Kobzev showed a makeshift courtroom at the police station, with a simple table and a microphone set up in front of a bulletin board. A video posted to Navalny’s Telegram account showed a judge in a black robe sitting in front of the bulletin board. Navalny said he had been led into the room a minute earlier from his jail cell.

“What is happening here is impossible,” Navalny said in the video. “This is the highest degree of lawlessness — I can’t call it anything else.”

Navalny, long one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics, collapsed and fell into a coma in August, and was airlifted to Germany for treatment. Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden determined he had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, which was developed in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The opposition leader vowed to return to Russia once he recovered and last week announced his plans to fly to Moscow despite the threat of arrest upon arrival.

That is exactly what happened Sunday evening: After Navalny’s flight landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, police officers met him at passport control and took him into custody. He spent the night at Police Station No. 2 in Khimki, near the airport, and was denied access to his lawyer. Kobzev was not allowed into the police station until Monday morning.

“It seems that the grandpa in the bunker is so afraid of everything that they demonstratively ripped apart the code of criminal procedure and threw it in the trash,” Navalny said, using one of his epithets for Putin.

Most journalists gathered outside the police station were not being let in, but at least three pro-Kremlin news outlets were allowed to enter through a back door. Police cited Navalny’s lack of a recent coronavirus test as the reason the hearing was not held in a regular courtroom and said attendance was restricted for reasons of “sanitary-epidemiological safety.”

“I demand that this procedure be as open as possible so that all media outlets have the possibility to observe the incredible absurdity of what is happening here,” Navalny told the judge, according to another video posted by his spokesperson.

As Navalny faced the judge inside, several hundred journalists and supporters stood in the bitter cold outside the barbed-wire fence ringing the police station, which is in a residential neighborhood of Soviet-era buildings. Some of his backers chanted “Freedom!” and “Let him go!”

A local district councilperson from the liberal Yabloko party, Antonina B. Stetsenko, arrived with a poster echoing Putin’s dismissive words about Navalny: “Freedom to Alexei Navalny, the patient in the Berlin clinic whom no one needs.” Within minutes, police officers had told her to move away.

“I believe it is my duty to support him,” Stetsenko said. “Nothing surprises me in this country anymore.”

Navalny was detained minutes after he arrived in Russia for the first time since August, when he was flown to Berlin in a coma. Russia’s prison service said he had violated the terms of a six-year-old suspended sentence while he was recuperating in Germany.

“What an enormous embarrassment for the whole judicial system,” Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, posted on Twitter. “This is simply something incredible.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called for the immediate release of Navalny and for Russia to examine the causes of his poisoning, her spokesperson said. In the United States, both the departing and incoming administrations also called for Navalny’s release, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo writing that “confident political leaders do not fear competing voices.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, said in a statement, “The Russian authorities must immediately release him and ensure his safety.”

“Detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments,” she added.

Russian officials dismissed the criticism. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that Western officials simply saw the case as a welcome distraction from their own problems.

“We are seeing how they’ve grabbed onto yesterday’s news about Navalny’s return to Russia — one can really feel how happily they’re commenting on it,” Lavrov said. “They are happy because it lets Western politicians think that they can thus distract attention from the global crisis in which the liberal model of development has ended up.”

As is often the case in Russia, historical symbolism loomed over the events Monday.

Photographs from inside the makeshift courtroom showed a portrait just behind Navalny of Genrikh Yagoda — a director of the Soviet secret police who supervised Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s and expanded the prison-camp system known as the Gulag.

On Russian state television’s marquee news show Sunday night, host Dmitry Kiselyov drew a different comparison, underscoring the government line that Navalny was working for Western intelligence agencies. He likened Navalny’s flight from Berlin to the sealed train that took Lenin from Switzerland, via Germany, to St. Petersburg in 1917, setting the stage for the Russian Revolution.

“The assault force isn’t quite on the same scale, but the Germans are in their repertoire,” Kiselyov said. “And everything is set up to show that they’re up to something special.”

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