Returning from Germany, where he was recovering from his suspected poisoning in August, Alexei Navalny was quite confident in the idea of returning to his native Russia. “Here, it is at home. I am not afraid (…) because I know that I am right and that the criminal cases launched against me are mounted from scratch. I am not afraid of anything and I call on you not to be afraid of anything, ”said the charismatic anti-corruption activist and sworn enemy of the Kremlin, a few minutes before his flight.
But as he was about to hand over his passport for border control, alongside his wife Yulia, the opponent was approached by several uniformed police officers who took him away. “Alexeï was arrested without the reason being explained (…) They did not let me come back to him” after crossing the border, said the opponent’s lawyer Olga Mikhaïlova. A Russian court on Monday ordered the detention until February 15 of the opponent, who in return called on the Russians to “take to the streets” against the government.
- Navalny in custody for 30 days
What is he criticized for? Alexeï Navalny, 44, has been wanted since the end of December by the FSIN, the service in charge of prisons in Russia, which accuses him of having violated the conditions of a suspended sentence which he received in 2014 and which obliged him to report at least twice a month to the prison administration.
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“Alexeï Navalny is detained for 30 days, until February 15,” said Monday his lawyer Vadim Kobzev on Twitter. Immediately after this decision, a video of the opponent filmed in the courtroom was posted on social networks in which he called on the Russians to take the opposition fight to the streets.
He has also been targeted since the end of December by a new investigation for fraud, suspected of having spent 356 million rubles (3.9 million euros) in donations for his personal use.
- 65 supporters also arrested
Originally due to land at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, the plane carrying the opponent was diverted at the last minute to Sheremetievo’s.
At Vnoukovo airport, most of his allies who came to welcome him were arrested by the police – including Lioubov Sobol, a rising figure of the Russian opposition – before being released a few hours later.
According to the specialized NGO OVD-Info, 65 people in total were arrested on Sunday in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in connection with the return of Alexei Navalny.
- The opponent denounces a “most total illegality”
“Do not be afraid of anything, take to the streets. Not for me, but for yourselves and for your future,” Navalny said on Monday in a video posted on social networks.
“Do not be silent, resist, go out into the street,” he added from the courtroom. His right-hand man Leonid Volkov immediately announced the organization of “big demonstrations across the country on January 23”.
The appeal also comes as the opponent’s camp was preparing an active campaign for the legislative elections scheduled for September, against a background of growing erosion of the popularity of the Kremlin party, United Russia.
- Unanimous condemnations from the western world
Reactions are multiplying in the Western world, most of them calling for the release of Alexeï Navalny. “The United States strongly condemns Russia’s decision to arrest Alexei Navalny,” US Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo said in a statement, saying “his detention is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who criticize the Russian authorities “. US President-elect Joe Biden’s future national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also called for the opponent’s release and to “hold accountable” the perpetrators of his poisoning in August.
“Canada strongly condemns the arrest of Alexei Navalny on his arrival in Moscow”, for his part underlined in a tweet, the new head of Canadian diplomacy Marc Garneau. The President of the European Council Charles Michel, for his part, judged the arrest of Alexei Navalny “unacceptable”, demanding his “immediate” release. Lithuania called for new sanctions against Moscow and Poland for a “swift and unequivocal response at EU level”.
“It is appalling that Alexey Navalny, victim of a heinous crime, is detained by the Russian authorities”, lambasted the British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab in a tweet. Berlin also calls for the activist’s release.
France, for its part, indicated that it had learned the information “with very great concern”, calling for “his immediate release”. The NGO Amnesty International finally estimated that the arrest of Alexeï Navalny made him a “prisoner of conscience” victim of a “relentless campaign” by the Russian authorities to “silence him”.
- A thorn in Moscow’s side
In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova retaliated via Facebook, asking foreign officials to “respect international law” and “meddle in their own problems.”
The Navalny case has not finished talking about him, however. Although largely ignored by the national media, not represented in Parliament and ineligible, Alexeï Navalny remains the main voice of the opposition, in part thanks to his YouTube channel with 4.8 million subscribers and his organization, the Struggle Fund Against Corruption (FBK), denouncing the corruption of the elites. Despite searches, pressure and sentences to short detentions regularly targeting Alexei Navalny or his allies, he has managed to organize several well-attended protests in recent years, and embarrassing setbacks for power in local elections.
Will he be able to survive another conviction? His notoriety, however, remains limited outside major cities, with a poll by the independent Levada center in September revealing that only 20% of Russians approved of his actions. For the experts, the return of Alexey Navalny before the legislative elections of 2021 is a thorn in the side of the Kremlin: leaving him free would be a demonstration of weakness, imprisoning him would risk causing a new scandal.
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