Krem­lin foe Navalny gets sus­pended sen­tence, calls for protests

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY OLGA ROTEN­BERG AND MARIA ANTONOVA

Rus­sia’s top op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny on Tues­day called for mass protests to “de­stroy” Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s regime after a court handed him a sus­pended sen­tence but jailed his brother in a con­tro­ver­sial fraud case.

In a light­ning hear­ing that was abruptly brought for­ward by two weeks, a judge found both Navalny and his brother Oleg guilty of em­bez­zle­ment and sentenced the sib­lings to three and a half years in what is widely seen as a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated case.

But while Navalny’s sen­tence was sus­pended, his younger brother, who is not in­volved in pol­i­tics, was or­dered to serve the time be­hind bars in what ob­servers saw as an at­tempt to muz­zle the Krem­lin’s critic ahead of 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions by tak­ing his brother hostage.

“This regime does not just de­stroy its po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents ... now they tar­get, tor­ture and tor­ment the rel­a­tives of its po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents,” Navalny said an­grily out­side the court­house, call­ing the ver­dict “the most mean and dis­gust­ing” pos­si­ble.

“This regime has no right to ex­ist, it must be de­stroyed,” he said. “I call on ev­ery­one to take to the streets to­day.”

Navalny’s sup­port­ers had al­ready been plan­ning to gather later on Tues­day near the Krem­lin and by mid­day, 17,000 peo­ple have pledged on Face­book to at­tend the 1600 GMT rally.

The protest has not re­ceived re­quired au­tho­riza­tion from city hall and po­lice warned that all il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity would be pun­ished.

The charis­matic Navalny has be­come a ma­jor thorn in the Krem­lin’s side over the last sev­eral years, first build­ing a mas­sive support base on the In­ter­net as an anti-cor­rup­tion blog­ger, then ral­ly­ing tens of thou­sands dur­ing the 2011-12 anti-Putin protests and most re­cently com­ing in sec­ond in last year’s Moscow mayor’s race after a grass­roots cam­paign against the Krem­lin-backed can­di­date.

The Navalny brothers were ac­cused of de­fraud­ing French cos­met­ics company Yves Rocher of nearly 27 mil­lion rubles (more than half a mil­lion dol­lars at the ex­change rate at the time), although the firm has said that it suf­fered no da­m­ages.

Pros­e­cu­tors had asked the court to jail Alexei for 10 years and Oleg for eight.

Tues­day’s hear­ing was a rushed af­fair — first the court abruptly moved it for­ward two weeks to just be­fore the New Year — Rus­sia’s big­gest hol­i­day — in a move seen as a tac­tic to avoid mas­sive protests.

And the read­ing it­self took only about 15 min­utes — un­usu­ally for Rus­sia where judges usu­ally read sen­tences for hours, out­lin­ing the pros­e­cu­tion’s proof and wit­ness tes­ti­monies.

“What are you jail­ing him for, what sort of dis­grace is this? This is to pun­ish me even more?” Navalny yelled, slam­ming his fists on the ta­ble, as the judge an­nounced that his 31-year-old brother, a fa­ther of two young chil­dren, would be jailed.

Ob­servers say that be­cause of Navalny’s promi­nence the ver­dict could not have been is­sued with­out ap­proval from Putin per­son­ally. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Kom­m­er­sant FM ra­dio on Tues­day that the pres­i­dent merely fol­lows the case on the me­dia.

Brother Taken ‘hostage’

In a coun­try dom­i­nated by Putin for years, ob­servers say that Navalny is the one fig­ure that can pose a threat to the strong­man — a tal­ented or­a­tor, he is young, hand­some, with a pho­to­genic wife and two kids, an unas­sum­ing mid­dle-class life­style and is un­stained by any ties to the 1990s po­lit­i­cal scene that many Rus­sians de­spise.

The mav­er­ick politi­cian — who has said he in­tends to run in the 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions — has seen a half a dozen crim­i­nal cases lodged against him and his al­lies re­cently, which he says are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, and has been un­der house ar­rest for nearly a year be­cause of sep­a­rate sus­pended sen­tence in a dif­fer­ent law­suit.

Navalny’s al­lies saw Tues­day’s sen­tence as an at­tempt to muz­zle the charis­matic fig­ure as the ru­ble plunges and the econ­omy teeters on the edge of re­ces­sion amid Moscow’s stand­off with the West over the Ukraine cri­sis.

AP

Rus­sian op­po­si­tion ac­tivist and anti-cor­rup­tion cru­sader Alexei Navalny, 38, stands at a court in Moscow on Tues­day, Dec. 30.

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