Moscow court upholds prison term for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny

Moscow: A Moscow court on Saturday upheld a ruling to jail the Kremlin’s most prominent opponent Alexei Navalny, sealing his first lengthy prison sentence in a decade of legal battles with Russian authorities.

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Judge Dmitry Balashov dismissed Navalny’s appeal against a recent decision to imprison him for violating the terms of a suspended sentence on embezzlement charges.

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The anti-corruption campaigner was ordered on February 2 to serve the time in a penal colony for breaching parole terms while in Germany recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.

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Navalny appeared in court Saturday inside a glass cage for defendants, wearing a plaid shirt, smiling, waving and flashing the V for victory symbol.

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In a closing address that referenced the Bible and Harry Potter, Navalny said he had no doubts about his decision to return to Russia.

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“The Bible says: ‘Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied,'” he told the court.

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“I have no regrets that I am back… I am satisfied that in a difficult moment I did not break this commandment.”

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Quoting from a character in Harry Potter, he said it was “important not to feel alone” because that was what the series’ villain Voldemort wanted.

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He described the legal process to jail him as “absurd” and called on Russians to take action to make the country a better place.

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“Russia should be not only free, but also happy,” Navalny said.

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Prosecutors lashed out at Navalny, saying he acted as if he was above the law and had “an exclusive right to do as he pleases”.

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The judge on Saturday decided to count six weeks Navalny was under house arrest as part of the time served, so he will now be imprisoned for just over two-and-a-half years in a penal colony.

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The ruling to sideline one of the most prominent players in Russian political life came just hours before Navalny was due in court again.

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Prosecutors in a separate trial have called for him to be fined the equivalent of $13,000 for calling a World War II veteran a “traitor” on Twitter last year, with a verdict also expected Saturday.

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They also asked for Navalny to be jailed on the same 2014 fraud conviction because the tweet was posted while he was serving the suspended sentence.

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Supporters of the outspoken opposition figure say the cases against the 44-year-old are a pretext to silence his corruption exposes and quash his political ambitions.

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Western pressure for release

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The 94-year-old veteran at the centre of the defamation trial appeared in a video that Navalny derided for promoting constitutional reforms, passed last year, that could allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.

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A series of theatrical hearings in the case ended Tuesday with Navalny asking if the judge could recommend a recipe for pickles, since it is “pointless to talk about the law” with her.

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Russia has come under increasing Western pressure to release Navalny since he was detained on arrival at a Moscow airport in January.

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He had spent months recovering in Germany from the attack with Novichok that he blames on the Kremlin. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement.

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The arrest sparked large protests across the country that saw more than 10,000 people detained, while the European Union threatened to impose new sanctions on Moscow.

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Europe’s rights court ruled this week that Russia must immediately release Navalny, a motion swiftly brushed aside by the justice ministry.

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Navalny’s jailing has exacerbated a crisis in Moscow’s ties with the West that began with the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

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EU foreign ministers, who are considering fresh sanctions, are due to meet with two top Navalny aides in Brussels on Sunday.

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