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Navalny's latest conviction 'purely political,' allies say

Kirill Buketov
August 4, 2023

Alexei Navalny has been handed 19 additional years in a brutal penal colony for "extremism." Are the charges against Russia's most famous political prisoner a sham?

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny appears behind bars in a prison uniform
Opposition figure Navalny's trial has been conducted behind closed doors and behind barsImage: Natalia KOLESNIKOVA/AFP

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navlny was handed 19 additional years in prison on Friday after being convicted of "extremism."

The trial against the man regarded as Russia's most famous political prisoner took place behind closed doors in a Moscow courtroom, but the hearings themselves were held at Penal Colony No. 6 in Melekhovo, around 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the capital.

Navalny, 47, is currently serving time for another conviction that he and many observers view as politically motivated. Now, his sentence has been extended after he was found guilty of founding and financing an extremist organization and trivializing Nazism.

The IK-6 prison where he is incarcerated is notorious for its harsh conditions and dangerous inmates — some of whom have had their death sentences commuted to life in prison. Navalny is in solitary confinement for the seventeenth time. He is not expected to be released into the general prison population until after the verdict is read.

Navalny verdict related to political activities

Leonid Volkov, a prominent Navalny ally, believes the extremism trial is designed to make an example of Navalny and other opposition leaders. Volkov expected a harsh sentence.

"This is the first time Navalny is being tried for his political activity," he said on DW's Russian-language Novosti Show podcast, noting that what is unique about this latest trial is its exclusively political nature.

Leonid Volkov, a man with a beard in a dark coat and a backpack, gazes past the camera
Navalny supporter and opposition leader Leonid Volkov says the trial is unique because its exclusively political nature Image: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/IMAGO

The first major trial against Navalny lasted several years and ended with him being sentenced to five years probation for embezzlement. The court found that in 2009, when he was advisor to the governor of the Kirov Region, he allegedly forced a timber company sell wood below market price.

In 2014, in a ruling later declared "arbitrary" by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), another Russian court found Navalny guilty of defrauding the Russian subsidiary of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher — for which Navalny and his brother Oleg had organized the shipping of products. Despite representatives of the company stating the subsidiary had suffered "no damage," Navalny was handed a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence. 

In March of 2022, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and contempt of court.

"The Kremlin has always tried to say, 'See, he's a crook... he's just a thief,'" says Volkov. "That's why they're trying so hard to turn the proceedings into a show trial. This new case against Navalny is purely political. He's being indicted because of all of his political activities, and now the Kremlin is retroactively deeming them extremist."

Navalny spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, speaking with DW after the first court date for the "extremism" charges, said, "all the possible verdicts are unlawful and this whole case is entirely fabricated. So, of course we will do our best to let the whole world know about it, including carrying out protest actions."

Navalny spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, a woman with dark red hair, is wearing a jacket and holding a cellphone
Writer and Navanly spokesperson Kira Yarmysh intends to inform the world about a trial she regards as illegitimate and unlawful Image: Yevgeny Sofiychuk/dpa/picture-alliance

The current case against Navalny fills up 196 binders of purported evidence and entails countless alleged violations of the criminal code. Among other things, he is accused of forming an extremist organization. That allegation is directed toward the Anti-Corruption Foundation he founded in 2011, as well as his own political office. Beyond that, he is said to have, "publicly incited extremist activities." The indictment for that charge is based on third-party statements. He is also accused of "reviving national socialism" and "encouraging minors to partake in life-threatening actions." These accusations are related to statements he made during demonstrations and political events. Navalny and his attorneys were only given 10 days to familiarize themselves with the slate of charges.

'Extremism' trial held behind closed doors

According to spokeswoman Yarmysh, Russian authorities wanted to conduct the trial as quietly as possible due to "lack of evidence" and have tried to hide it from public view.

"The trial will be as closed as possible," Navalny advocate Leonid Volkov said ahead of Friday's ruling. "We will only be told the verdict. The Kremlin will do everything to ensure that no information leaks out."

The preliminary hearing, for instance, was postponed from May 31 to June 6, and then the location of the trial was changed from the Moscow City Court to the penal colony. After the preliminary hearing, it was announced that the trial on June 19 would be public and the press would be given access. But three days beforehand, it was revealed that journalists would only be allowed to observe a transmission of the proceedings from a special offsite room. During Navalny's last trial, transmission was interrupted, then turned off completely when he made his closing statement.

Since the extremism trial took place behind closed doors, exact details are only known to the participants. The most important sources of information were defense witnesses who took part in the hearing via live video link. Former Moscow district council member Alexei Gorinov was one of those witnesses, alongside opposition politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin —  both of whom were convicted in trials widely believed to have been politically motivated.

Ilya Yashin, a man with glasses wearing a brown turtleneck, waves from behind glass in a Moscow courtroom as a police officer with a medical mask stands behind him
Jailed opposition activist Ilha Yashin was allowed to be 'interrogated' by Navalny as part of this latest trialImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Yashin wrote the following on Telegram: "Last Wednesday, I took part in the trial against Navalny from prison via video. Navalny filed a motion to question me as a witness, which the judge permitted. Alexei mostly led the interrogation himself, which was quite funny at times."  

During Yashin's "interrogation," it was revealed that Navalny also stands accused of running for office as a pretext for a potential power grab. "Ilya, according to the indictment, my motivations for running for mayor of Moscow were extremist. I supposedly wanted to rile up hate against the government and overthrow it. Do you know anything about that?" Navalny asked Yashin.

"Overthrowing the government by running for office? As far as I know, you were permitted to be a candidate and received support from one-third of the voters. By the prosecutor's logic, the entire election committee and hundreds of thousands of Moscow residents should be facing charges," Yashin responded. 

"Don't give the prosecuting attorney's office any tips!" Navalny quipped sarcastically. Yashin later wrote on Telegram about this part of the trial, and that Navalny was in good spirits despite detention and bullying.

A satirical rap song as evidence

Among the "evidence" being used to prove Navanly's supposed "extremism" is the satirical song "Navalny Lyokha." Lyokya is an affectionate shortening of Navalny's first name Alexei. A musician performed the song before the last presidential election in 2018 — in which Navalny was not allowed to participate.

"The secretary started laughing as soon as she understood what was going on, and then the bailiff did, too. When we got to the words  'Navalny Lyokya,' even the judge started laughing," wrote Navalny on social media. He also sarcastically mentioned that it was more "strong evidence that [he] was planning a violent overthrow of Vladimir Putin."

Vladimir Kara-Murza wears a turtleneck and a suit jacket as he is flanked by police officers in a Moscow court building
Jailed opposition activist and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza said Navalny's situation was reminiscent of Franz Kafka's novel, 'The Trial'Image: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/picture alliance/dpa

Not only have Navalny and members of his team repeatedly emphasized the absurdity of the trial, some witnesses have as well. Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was convicted of treason and sentenced to 25 years in prison, compared the proceedings to Franz Kafka's novel, "The Trial." Kara-Murza quoted Navalny who said during his interrogation, "only in our courts can an extremist [Navalny] call a traitor [Kara-Murza] as a witness."

Journalists and observers were banned from watching Navalny's closing statement. That's why Navalny's team asked well-known Russian musicians, artists and academics to relay it. So far, celebrities including the singer Monetochka, actor Dmitry Nazarov, director Andrey Zvyagintsev, economist Sergei Guriev, and other prominent Russians have taken part in a video supporting the accused opposition figure.

Navalny insists everyone must sacrifice something so that "a new country can be made." He also recalled the words of early twentieth century literary scholar Juri Lotman, who maintained that people always need to be supported by two things: consciousness and intelligence. 

"My Russia made several major leaps, pushing everyone around, but then slipped, and, with a roar, destroying everything around it, collapsed," Navalny quoted.

This article was translated from German. It was originally published on August 2 and has been updated to include the August 3 verdict.