He stood straight and smiled, silently interacting with people as he waited for his sentence to be read in a Moscow court Tuesday evening. He made the sign of a heart with his hands several times, presumably for his wife of 20 years, Yulia, who sat in the courtroom dressed in red.
The sharpest thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side, anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was sentenced to three and half years in a penal colony. He’ll get credit for time already served under house arrest.
Still, Navalny will be deprived of his freedom for at least two and a half more years unless something changes. Condemnation from around the world was swift. International diplomats and leaders probably had their statements ready to go and simply just had to hit send. The sentence was not unexpected.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Navalny’s immediate release.
“Like every Russian citizen,” his statement read, “Mr. Navalny is entitled to the rights provided in the Russian constitution, and Russia has international obligations to respect equality before the law and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry fired back that Western calls to free Navalny “are divorced from reality.”
Navalny’s sentence is related to a 2014 fraud case the European Court of Human Rights ruled was unlawful, arbitrary and politically motivated. Russia is actually part of the European court’s jurisdiction, so its ruling matters technically, not just morally.
But the Russian courts have ignored it and the judge Tuesday ruled Navalny had violated conditions of his parole and for that he would have to now pay.
Navalny has claimed time and again that he didn’t flee Russia – he was transported out of the country while in a coma after suffering a Novichok attempt on his life. That made it impossible to uphold parole conditions at home.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” a defiant Navalny said to the judge today. “We know why this is happening. Because of the hatred and fear of one man in a bunker. Because I mortally offended him by surviving after they tried to kill me on his orders.”
Navalny often refers to Putin as “the old man in the bunker.” The Kremlin also avoids using Navalny’s name, often referring to him as “the Berlin patient.”
Navalny, with characteristic boldness and edge, went on to tell the court that not only was Putin angry he’d survived the poisoning but he was incensed that Navalny had gone on to investigate and solve his own case (because the Kremlin hasn’t even opened one).
Navalny did this with the help of a team of journalists and identified the squad of alleged killers down to one he even managed to get on the phone. That agent, who’d been tricked into thinking he was talking to a fellow security services foot soldier, elaborated to a disguised Navalny that his poison had been applied to the crotch of his blue boxer shorts.
“No matter how much Putin tries to pose as a geo-politician,” Navalny continued in court today, “his main resentment toward me is that he will go down in history as a poisoner. There was Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.” He went on to describe Putin as “a little, thieving man.”
Navalny was arrested last month upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for the Novichok poisoning. Two days later, his team released a two-hour documentary on “Putin’s Palace,” a billion-dollar structure Navalny claims belongs to Putin but that was paid for by his friends. He dubbed it the world’s biggest bribe.
Using drone footage and life-like renderings drawn after talking to sources said to be involved in the construction, Navalny lays out an eye-popping lair of luxury, complete with vineyards, oyster farms, an elaborate fountain/bar called an “aqua disco” and $800 toilet brushes, to name a few details. The Kremlin has called the story a fake and said the palace isn’t Putin’s.
But the video has notched over 100 million views and convinced enough people that between the idea of ill-gotten opulence and Navalny’s jailing via what he calls extra-legal procedures, popular anger propelled tens of thousands to take to the streets the past two weekends across Russia. Thousands have been detained.
But many of the demonstrators have maintained a sense of humor, wielding toilet brushes as a symbol of anger at corruption. They’ve even come up with an anthem, a catchy tune from a hastily put together and now viral video called “Aqua Discoteka.” Protesters have danced to it, in part probably to keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures of Russian winter.
Navalny’s message to supporters today was to not be afraid and to keep speaking up against corruption. He said Russia’s a big country and it can’t arrest everyone. Navalny insists people in the resource-rich country should have better living standards.
“We have 20 million people below the poverty line,” he said. “Tens of millions live without the slightest prospects for the future. Life in Moscow is more or less fine, but if you drive 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, it’s full of poverty. This whole country lives in this poverty and the government is trying to shut them up with such show trials.”
Navalny’s team called for immediate protests around the Kremlin, but the area was ringed with impressive battalions of riot police.
It is not clear what the next chapter of this story will be. But Navalny promised in court today that he will not give up his fight to rid Russia of corruption. At this point, few doubt him.