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Free Navalny, European rights court asks Russia

February 17, 2021

The Kremlin critic was arrested on his return to Russia from Germany in January. He is serving time in prison, following a trial that Navalny dismissed as a tool to silence him.

Alexei Navalny
The European Court of Human Rights has called for Russia to release outspoken Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei NavalnyImage: Babuskinsky District Court/AP Photo/picture alliance

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) called for the release of opposition leader and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Wednesday.

"The Court grants an interim measure in favor of Aleksei Navalny and asks to the Government of Russia to release him," the European rights court said in a press release, using a different spelling of Navalny's name.

Navalny's team had also shared a copy of a letter addressed to Navalny's lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, from the ECHR informing her of the decision and the plan to notify the government in Russia.

The ECHR is the international court of the Council of Europe, Europe's main human rights forum, of which Russia is a member.

The case against Navalny:

A Moscow court on February 2 found Navalny guilty of disobeying the terms of his probation over a 2014 money laundering conviction.

It sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a penal colony, albeit with some of that time already served.

But Europe’s top human rights court had already ruled in 2017 that Navalny’s 2014 conviction for fraud had been "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."

It ordered Russia to pay him compensation.

During the trial in February, Navalny said the legal actions against him were designed to intimidate people.

Most European governmentsand the US have staunchly criticized Russia for jailing Navalny.

Will Navalny now be released?

The ECHR called for his release as an interim measure under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court.

Rule 39 is for people who face "an imminent risk of irreparable harm," according to a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) description.

Rule 39 individual interim measures are binding for the period during which they remain in force, the UNHCR toolkit states.

But Russia's justice minister dismissed the court's demand as "unfounded and unlawful." The Foreign Ministry dismissed the order as part of Western meddling in the country's domestic affairs.

The Russian Justice Ministry previously warned: "The ECHR can't substitute a national court or cancel its verdict," the statement added.

Why is this a 'unique situation'?

In the past, Moscow has abided by the ECHR's rulings awarding compensation to Russian citizens who have contested verdicts in Russian courts.

But "this is an absolutely unique situation" Galina Arapova, director and senior media lawyer at the NGO Mass Media Defense Center (Russia) told DW.

"I can’t remember any other example when the European Court demanded the release of a person charged with a criminal offense — and Navalny is formally serving a criminal sentence" Arapova said..

"The application of Rule 39 of the Rules of Court is an urgent measure. Such measures are usually taken when for example a person faces extradition to another country where this person would be in danger. Previously urgent measures were only taken upon request of the defense lawyer of the person in danger, when their case was connected with an extradition," Arapova added.

The Council of Europe has very "limited" ways to pressure Russia to carry out the decision now, apart from deciding to expel it for failing to fulfill obligations, DW's Russia Correspondent Emily Sherwin tweeted, citing Arapova. "That would be very bad for the people of Russia," who often rely on the ECHR for justice.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

The 44-year-old is a Russian lawyer, anti-corruption activist and opposition leader.

He has tried for over a decade to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin, using his YouTube channel to expose corruption and even launching a presidential run against Putin.

His prominence was boosted after he survived an attempted poisoning in Siberia in August 2020. International experts believe he was poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent.

After being treated in Germany, he returned to Russia and was arrested on arrival on January 17.

His arrest sparked nationwide protests, attended by tens of thousands of people.

He is currently standing trial, facing the separate charge of insulting a World War II veteran.

kmm/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)