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Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader, during a court session in Pokrov, Vladimir region, Russia, March 22, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Berlin) – The conviction of the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on new trumped-up charges on March 22, 2022, reflects the Russian government’s intensified crackdown on dissent and free expression since the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The latest verdict against Navalny is yet another mockery of justice,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This verdict is apparently intended not only to silence Navalny but to serve as a warning to Russian civil society and anyone who dares to stand up to the Kremlin’s policies.”

Navalny was arrested in January 2021 immediately upon his return to Russia after undergoing treatment in Germany following his near-fatal poisoning in August 2020. Russian authorities accused him of violating the terms of his probation while he was in Germany and in February 2021 sent him to prison to serve the remaining 32 months of his suspended sentence. Russian authorities have been bringing new criminal charges against him ever since, seemingly aiming to ensure that he remains locked up for many years and cannot continue mobilizing Russia’s civil society and exposing corruption at the highest echelons of power.

In late 2021, in his social media post, Navalny joked that he’ll be out of jail “by spring 2051.”

The trial on trumped up charges of embezzlement and insulting a judge took place in a penal colony in Pokrov, where Navalny has been serving his prison sentence on previous charges. He was sentenced to nine more years in prison and a 1.2 million ruble (approx. US$11,300) fine.

In February, during the trial, one of the witnesses for prosecution openly refuted his earlier written statement, saying that the government investigator threatened him with prosecution and coerced him to recite what appeared in it, as narrated by the investigators. Instead, the witness testified in court in support of Navalny, stating that Navalny had acted lawfully and called the trial “an absurdity.” He fled the country the following day in fear of retaliation.

The verdict omitted any mention of this, however, and instead included parts of this witness’s written statement.

One of the two separate charges against Navalny in this trial was for insulting a judge during another trial against Navalny in February 2021. He was found guilty in that trial of defamation against a World War II veteran for criticizing a state-supported advertisement for constitutional amendments that featured the war veteran, among others, in mid-2021.

The other charge was for embezzlement of donations to organizations affiliated with Navalny, including the Foundation Against Corruption (FBK), which Navalny founded. Part of the alleged misconduct was that Navalny supposedly was raising funds for his presidential campaign, although he knew that he could not run due to an outstanding criminal sentence for an earlier embezzlement conviction.

The authorities accused Navalny of embezzling more than half of all donations, or more than 356 million rubles (then worth US$5 million) for personal gain. The March 22 verdict concerned only 2.7 million rubles of the allegedly embezzled funds. One of Navalny’s lawyers earlier commented that there is a separate “larger embezzlement case” against Navalny, and that there may be new trials against him on the same charges.

Russian authorities have brought several other criminal proceedings against Navalny, including for creating a nongovernmental organization that “encroaches on peoples’ rights,” in connection with the publication of FBK’s anti-corruption investigations; and on “extremism” charges, in connection with FBK and two other groups affiliated with Navalny that were unjustly blacklisted as “extremist” by a court in June 2021. The latter case was combined with earlier, highly dubious accusations, leveled against Navalny’s aides, of money laundering and involving children in peaceful albeit unauthorized protests.

“The cases against Navalny are part of the Kremlin’s grim landscape of repression against Russia’s civil society and peaceful dissent, which has drastically intensified since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Williamson said.

Since February 24, Russian police have arbitrarily detained thousands of peaceful anti-war protesters across the country. The police subjected some detainees to severe ill-treatment and other rights violations.

In early March, the Russian authorities adopted a package of laws criminalizing so-called “false information” and “discrediting Russian armed forces,” which penalizes independent war reporting, referring to the armed conflict in Ukraine as a “war,” or protesting against it with hefty fines and even lengthy prison terms.

The few remaining independent Russian media outlets have had to suspend their work or have relocated outside of Russia, or were shut down by the authorities. Russian authorities have blocked the websites of independent Russian media outlets and foreign outlets. They have also blocked foreign social media in Russia and blacklisted Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp as “extremist.”

In the first two weeks since the war started on February 24, at least 150 journalists left Russia. Tens of thousands of others have also fled the country, including human rights defenders and civic activists, due to drastically increased risks of arbitrary arrest and prosecution. In a recent public address, President Vladimir Putin lashed out at so-called “national traitors” and a “fifth column,” terminology that has strong negative historical associations.

“The Kremlin seems determined to isolate Russian society from the outside world to cut Russians off from uncomfortable facts, including about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Williamson said. “So it’s hardly surprising that Russian authorities are doubling down on smearing and silencing Navalny and others who can tell people not to believe the Kremlin’s lies and that the world is watching.”

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