Alexei Navalny sentenced to prison term for violating probation as protesters detained

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to more than three years in prison in a Moscow court hearing on Tuesday, but not before calling the proceedings a vain attempt by the Kremlin to scare millions of Russians into submission.

Russian opposition figure, poisoned in August, denounced Putin in proceedings

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny makes a heart gesture with his hands while in a cage in the Moscow City Court on Tuesday. His suspended sentence from his 2014 criminal conviction was ultimately converted to a prison term. (Press Service of Simonovsky District Court/Handout/Reuters)

A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison for 3½ years for violating the terms of his probation while he was recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning.

With time he has previously served under house arrest, it will leave Navalny to serve just over 2½ years in prison to finish the sentence. Navalny's legal team is expected to appeal the sentence.

Just before the ruling, Navalny, who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, had denounced the proceedings as a vain attempt by the Kremlin to scare millions of Russians into submission.

After the verdict that was announced at about 8 p.m. local time, protesters converged on an area of central Moscow and gathered on St. Petersburg's main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt. Helmeted riot police grabbed demonstrators without obvious provocation and put them in police vehicles.

The ruling came despite massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends and Western calls to free the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner.

Police detain a Navalny supporter in Moscow's Red Square on Tuesday. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

The prison sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and politically motivated.

Police were out in force outside the Moscow courthouse on Tuesday, cordoning off the nearby streets and making random arrests. More than 900 people were detained before and after the court ruling, according to the OVD-Info group that monitors arrests.

'You can't jail the entire country' 

As the order was read, Navalny smiled and pointed to his wife, Yulia, in the courtroom, making the outline of a heart with his hands in the glass cage where he was being held. "Everything will be fine," he told her as guards led him away.

Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the charge and claim, despite tests by several European labs, that there is no proof he was poisoned.

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, leaves the courthouse after Tuesday's hearing. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Speaking from a glass cage in the courtroom, Navalny attributed his arrest to Putin's "fear and hatred," saying the Russian leader will go down in history as a "poisoner."

"I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt that he ordered," Navalny said.

"The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people," he went on. "You can't jail millions. You can't jail the entire country."

Police officers detain people near the Moscow City Court during Navalny's hearing on Tuesday. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia's penitentiary service alleges that Navalny violated the probation conditions of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as politically motivated.

He emphasized that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his conviction was unlawful and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.

Navalny and his lawyers have argued that while he was recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he couldn't register with Russian authorities in person as required by his probation. Navalny also insisted that his due process rights were crudely violated during his arrest and described his jailing as a travesty of justice.

"I came back to Moscow after I completed the course of treatment," Navalny said during Tuesday's hearing. "What else could I have done?"

Arrests outside court building

Navalny's jailing has triggered massive protests across Russia for the past two weekends, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand his release and chant slogans against Putin.

Police detained more than 5,750 people on Sunday, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the biggest number the country has seen since Soviet times. Most were released after being handed a court summons, and they face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.

"I am fighting and will keep doing it even though I am now in the hands of people who love to put chemical weapons everywhere and no one would give three kopecks for my life," Navalny said.

Members of the Russian National Guard gather outside Red Square to prevent a protest rally on Tuesday. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

Some Navalny supporters still managed to approach the building. A young woman climbed a large pile of snow across the street from the courthouse and held up a poster reading, "Freedom to Navalny." Less than a minute later, a police officer took her away.

After his arrest, Navalny's team released a two-hour YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin.

The video has been viewed more than 100 million times, fuelling discontent as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn, the coronavirus pandemic and widespread corruption during Putin's years in office.

LISTEN | Alexei Navalny, the 'anti-Putin':

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and across Russia to demand the release of prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny this past weekend. Police used force to break up the protests and detained more than 2,500 people. Navalny is best known for his anti-corruption investigations and was recently the subject of an assassination attempt. After recovering from his poisoning in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia only to be arrested and imprisoned in Moscow. CBC Russia correspondent Chris Brown talks to host Jayme Poisson about the growing movement in support of Navalny, and whether it might actually challenge President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in Russia.

Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video, and his longtime confidant, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, claimed that he owns it.

As part of efforts to squelch the protests, the authorities have targeted Navalny's associates and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, top ally Lyubov Sobol and several others were put under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges of violating coronavirus restrictions.

International condemnation

The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials — including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau — calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was quick to release a condemnation of the ruling.

"Today's perverse ruling, targeting the victim of a poisoning rather than those responsible, shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Navalny's "immediate and unconditional release," while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas characterized it as "a bitter blow against fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Russia."

"Sweden and the EU are concerned about the situation with democracy, civil society and human rights in Russia," Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.

The diplomat said Navalny's poisoning and the response by Russian authorities to the street protests will be part of the discussion.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will visit Moscow later this week, has criticized the detentions and the disproportionate use of force against protesters, emphasizing that Russia must comply with its international commitments on human rights.

WATCH | Navalny sentenced to prison for parole violation:

Navalny sentenced to prison for parole violation

2 years ago
Duration 2:03
A Russian court has sentenced Alexei Navalny, one of Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, to prison to three and a half years in prison for an alleged parole violation, which he says is politically motivated. The sentencing sparked more protests in Moscow and hundreds were arrested.

Russia has dismissed U.S. and EU officials' criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and said that Navalny's current situation is a procedural matter for the court, not an issue for the government.

More than a dozen Western diplomats attended Tuesday's court hearing, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova charged that their presence was part of efforts by the West to contain Russia, adding that it could be an attempt to exert "psychological pressure" on the judge.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russia is ready for dialogue about Navalny but sternly warned that it wouldn't take Western criticism into account.

"We are ready to patiently explain everything, but we aren't going to react to mentor-style statements or take them into account," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

With files from Reuters