A Moscow court on Saturday dismissed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s appeal against his prison sentence, even as the country faced ato free the Kremlin’s most important enemy.
Hours later, a judge in another case ordered Navalny to pay a fine for libel of a World War II veteran.
At the first hearing, Navalny urged the Russians to stand up to the Kremlin in a heated speech mixing references to the Bible and “Harry Potter”.
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption crusader and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on January 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve poisoning which he attributes to the Kremlin. Russian authorities dismissed the accusation.
Earlier this month, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail for violating his probation terms while recovering in Germany. He appealed the sentence and asked to be released. A judge at the Moscow City Court instead reduced the prison sentence to just over 2.5 years, deducting a month and a half that Navalny spent under house arrest in early 2015.
The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction which Navalny dismissed as fabricated and which the European Court of Human Rights ruled illegal.
Navalny was held at Matrosskaya Tishina Prison in Moscow, but Russian reports said that after losing his appeal he would likely be sent to a western Russian prison in the next few days to serve his sentence.
His arrest and imprisonment fueled a huge wave of protests across Russia. Authorities responded with sweeping crackdowns, detaining around 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
In his speech to the audience, Navalny referred to the Bible as well as “Harry Potter” and the animated sitcom “Rick and Morty” in urging the Russians to resist pressure from the authorities and to challenge the Kremlin to building a more just and prosperous country.
“The government’s job is to scare you and then convince you that you are alone,” he said. “Our Voldemort in his palace also wants me to feel cut off,” he added, referring to Putin.
“Living is risking everything,” he said, quoting “Rick and Morty”. “Otherwise, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.”
Navalny also addressed the judge and prosecutor, saying they could have a much better life in a new Russia.
“Imagine how wonderful life would be without constant lying,” he says. “Imagine how great it would be to work as a judge … when no one could call you and tell you the verdicts.”
He insisted that he was unable to report to authorities in accordance with his probation conditions while recovering in Germany after his poisoning, pointing out that he returned to Russia immediately after that his state of health allowed it.
“I wasn’t hiding,” he says. “The whole world knew where I was.”
Navalny said he was an atheist before but has come to believe in God, adding that his faith has helped him face his challenges. He said he believed the biblical phrase that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, and that he felt no regret for deciding to return home to Russia.
“Even though our country is built on injustice and we are all constantly faced with injustice … we also find that millions of people, tens of millions of people, want justice,” Navalny told the courtyard. “They want justice and sooner or later they will get it.”
Asked about the impact of Navalny’s prison sentence on Russian politics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the country’s “rich and multifaceted” political scene would flourish regardless of the verdict.
Russia has dismissed Western criticism of Navalny’s arrest and crackdown on protests as interference in its internal affairs.
In a ruling on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Russian government to release Navalny, citing “the nature and extent of the risk to the applicant’s life”. The Strasbourg-based court noted that Navalny disputed the Russian authorities’ argument that they had taken sufficient steps to protect his life and well-being in detention after the attack by a nerve agent.
The Russian government rejected the European Court’s request, calling the decision illegal and “inadmissible” interference in Russia’s affairs. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Russian Justice Ministry sent a letter to the court on Saturday asking it to review its order.
In the past, Moscow has complied with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights awarding compensation to Russian citizens who have challenged verdicts in Russian courts, but has never faced a request from the European Court. to free a convict.
As a sign of long-standing dissatisfaction with the Strasbourg court’s verdicts, Russia last year passed a constitutional amendment declaring national legislation to take precedence over international law. The Russian authorities could now use this provision to reject the decision of the ECHR.
After losing his appeal, Navalny had a second hearing on defamation charges against a World War II veteran and was ordered to pay a fine of 850,000 rubles (approximately $ 11,500). Prosecutors requested a fine of 950,000 rubles ($ 13,000).
Navalny called the 94-year-old veteran and others featured in a pro-Kremlin video last year “corrupt cronies”, “people without conscience” and “traitors”. He rejected the slander accusations, describing them as part of official efforts to disparage him.
Navalny told the hearing his accusers “will burn in hell”.