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Navalny detained after landing in Moscow — as it happened

January 17, 2021

Prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was taken into police custody after arriving in Moscow. Navalny, who survived an attempt on his life in August, said he was "not afraid of anything."

Navalny, flanked by his wife Yulia, is stopped by police while going through passport control
Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Fierce Kremlin critic and political campaigner Alexei Navalny was detained after flying out of Germany and returning to Russia on Sunday, defying warnings by Russian authorities. 

His detention has been slammed by European and US officials, who are calling for Russian authorities to "immediately" release him.

What happened?

After landing at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, Navalny said all charges against him were trumped up and that he was "not afraid of anything and asking you not to be afraid of anything," according to a video published by Russia's Dozhd TV.

Navalny also said that he never had second thoughts about returning to Russia.

"This is my home," he said.

He then headed to passport control where he was detained by police. His aide Ilya Yashin shared a video of the confrontation, during which Navalny is heard asking for his lawyer to be given access to him.

The police denied the request, according to Yashin.

After being detained at the airport, Navalny was taken to a nearby police station, his allies said on Twitter.

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said that the authorities was scared of her husband and were showing that by disrupting flights and detained a large number of people "just over a man who is returning to his motherland."

"The most important thing Alexey said tonight is that he’s not afraid. I’m not afraid either. And I call on you all not to be afraid," she told reporters before leaving Sheremetyevo.

Below is a breakdown of the events leading up to Navalny's arrest — from the moment he landed back in Russia to the mood on his flight out of Germany.

Airports switched last-minute

Navalny left Berlin on a flight operated by Russian airline Pobeda and was scheduled to land at Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Just minutes before his arrival, however, Pobeda said the hub was closed for arriving planes. The screens at Vnukovo then showed the flight as being diverted to Moscow's largest airport, Sheremetyevo. 

Navalny puts on a jacket while preparing to leave the plane in Moscow
Navalny traveled to Moscow with his wife YuliaImage: Polina Ivanova/REUTERS

According to a Reuters reporter on board Navalny's plane, the plane's captain announced the change of course after the descent to Vnukovo had already started. The pilot reportedly spoke of "technical difficulties" before adding, with audible amusement: "Instead we will calmly make our way to Sheremetyevo airport... where the weather is great!"

While the reasons for switching airports were not immediately clear, Russian authorities have made no secret of their plans to arrest Navalny upon return. The 44-year-old called on his supporters to meet him at Vnukovo, but authorities warned against unauthorized rallies on the premises.

On Sunday, Moscow police detained several of his aides at Vnukovo airport and cleared the crowd that gathered to welcome him at his scheduled destination. Security had been tightened around the Moscow airport awaiting Navalny's arrival.

DW's Moscow correspondent, Emily Sherwin, reported from outside Vnukovo that the gathering "almost feels like a protest."

Speaking to DW TV, she said it seemed that the Kremlin "wanted at all costs to avoid him coming out to a crowd of supporters" at the airport.

"That would have been, I think, an absolute nightmare for the Kremlin," Sherwin said.

Navalny's poisoning and his subsequent investigation raised the activist's profile both abroad and in Russia, she added.

Russian officials: Navalny to 'be held in custody'

The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), founded by Navalny, confirmed his arrival to Sheremetyevo and invited people to "come meet him."

"You might still make it!" they wrote on Twitter. 

However, Dozhd TV reported that police closed off the exit from the Vnukovo airport.

Meanwhile, Russia's federal prison service FSIN said Navalny had been arrested over "multiple violations" of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud charges. The opposition leader "will be held in custody" until a court ruling, they said.

The Russian authorities said Navalny was invited to check in regarding his suspended sentence while he was being treated in the Berlin Charite Hospital in Germany. However, he missed further appointments after being released in September 2020, they said.

The officials said that "despite the absence of objective reasons, he was not checking in […] which made another violation of the probation terms."

'What bad thing can happen to me in Russia?'

Before taking off from Berlin, Navalny told reporters he was "very happy" and was "sure everything will be great."

He dismissed the fears he would be arrested upon arrival.

"Arrest me upon landing!? That cannot be done," he said.

"What do I need to be afraid of? What bad thing can happen to me in Russia?" he told reporters, saying he was innocent of any wrongdoing and felt he was "a citizen of Russia who has every right" to go back to his native country.

Clampdown on Navalny supporters

Even before the politician's return, however, his close ally Ivan Zhdanov reported that several of Navalny's associates were detained in Moscow while waiting for the politician's plane to land.

Russian special police teams and riot police in Vnukovo
Police officers in riot gear have been deployed to the Vnukovo airport before Navalny's destination was switched to the Shermetyevo airportImage: Elena Barysheva/DW

The Russian authorities detained dissident and anti-corruption lawyer Lyubov Sobol as well Navalny's assistant Ilya Pahomov, along with several others, according to Zhdanov, who leads Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

Navalny supporters posted this video from inside the airport, claiming that it showed the detainment of Sobol, Navalny's brother Oleg, and FBK official Ruslan Shaveddinov. 

The news on Sobol's detainment was also confirmed by Russia's Dozhd TV. The independent broadcaster published a video of a man flying a Russian flag and chanting Navalny's name while at the same time calling President Vladimir Putin a "thief" at Vnukovo. The man was later detained, according to Dozhd.

Soon after, Dozhd reporter Eduard Burmistrov was also briefly detained while broadcasting live.

"Police officers literally grabbed me and are now dragging me somewhere," he said in the video posted on Twitter.

Ahead of her detainment on Sunday, Sobol posted a video on her channel where she said she "went through [airport security] as usual."

The 33-year-old activist said she brought a special backpack with her because she had expected to be detained while making her way to the Vnukovo terminal.

Sobol added that "this is how it usually goes."

Sobol points up while giving a speech to protesters in Moscow in 2019
Sobol was also detained in December for walking inside an apartment building in an attempt to reach a man suspected of being involved in Navalny's poisoningImage: Reuters/S. Zhumatov

"I'm very happy that made it through the airport, that I'm sitting here and I'm very much hoping I would be able to meet Navalny and that there would be no provocations from the government," she told Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Sobol was released several hours later.

Navalny's wife makes movie reference before takeoff

"I'm flying home," Navalny posted from the tarmac. 

The tweet links to a short video posted on his Instagram channel, which shows Navalny sitting in the plane next to his wife Yulia. He and his wife are seen taking off their face masks, with Yulia then saying, "Kid, get us some water, we are flying home" in reference to a final scene of the popular Russian movie "Brat 2." The 2000 film ends with a male and a female character taking a flight from the US to Moscow.

One of Putin's main rivals, Navalny was flown to Berlin in August last year after surviving an assassination attempt from the Novichok nerve agent.

Authorities long intended to put the activist behind bars

The Russian federal prison service FSIN said on Thursday that it would take all actions necessary to detain him and had requested that his suspended sentence be upgraded to jail time.

Navalny was convicted in 2014 of fraud charges that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled unlawful.

"In theory, they can detain him as soon as he arrives [in Russia] but initially only for 48 hours," said Vadim Kobzev, one of Navalny's lawyers.

Moscow has denied all allegations of poisoning the anti-corruption activist although scientists in Germany, Sweden and France, as well as tests from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons all confirmed traces of the Soviet-era nerve-agent found on Navalny.

The activist also recorded a phone call with the agent who allegedly poisoned him admitting to his actions. Moscow has rejected the recordings as fake.

Navalny's poisoning and later treatment in Germany have been a source of contention between Russia and the EU.

Late last year, the European Union imposed travel bans and bank account freezes on several Russian officials over the incident, including the head of Russia's FSB intelligence service.

dj,ab/sms (dpa, AFP, AP, Reuters, Interfax)

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