Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Sentenced to Over 2 Years in Penal Colony

He allegedly violated parole—while recovering from the Russian government’s efforts to poison him.

Protesters hold a banner reading "FREE NAVALNY"
Protesters hold a banner reading "FREE NAVALNY" in front of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, as some 2,500 supporters of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny march to demand his release from prison in Moscow on Jan. 23. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

A Moscow court on Tuesday sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a penal colony for violating the terms of his probation for a previous conviction, which he argues was politically motivated. The decision marks the first time the fierce Kremlin critic has been sentenced to serve an extended prison sentence, and it comes as tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country on consecutive Saturdays to protest his arrest. 

Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport in January after returning from Germany, where he had been flown for treatment after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok while on a trip to Siberia. An investigation by open-source researchers at Bellingcat later revealed that members of the Russian security services were involved in orchestrating the poisoning, which could have been lethal. 

According to a Russian protest monitoring group, OVD-info, over 300 people were arrested in Moscow while protesting in support of Navalny. 

“The main thing about this process is not how it ends for me. Will they convict me or not. It’s not difficult to imprison me, for this or another matter. The main reason this is happening is to intimidate a large number of people. This is how it works: One person is imprisoned to frighten millions,” Navalny said at the beginning of the hearing. 

Speaking on Echo of Moscow, a liberal radio station, Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann noted that the sentence would keep Navalny imprisoned during parliamentary elections next year and any aftershocks that may follow as the Kremlin seeks to keep a tight lid on growing unrest. 

Although analysts believe that the Kremlin’s grip on power is tight—for now, at least—the attempted killing of Navalny and Tuesday’s sentencing highlights the increased insecurity on the part of the Russian authorities about his ability to mobilize public discontent as President Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings have slumped in recent years. 

As his sentence was read out, Navalny looked over to his wife Yulia Navalnaya and drew a heart with his finger on the glass wall of the defendant’s box, a common feature of Moscow courtrooms. 

Western governments were quick to react to the sentencing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was deeply concerned by the decision. “We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” he said in a statement. “Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for the unconditional release of Navalny and of everyone arrested in recent weeks for protesting his detention. 

Navalny’s sentence hinges upon a 2014 conviction in which Navalny and his brother were accused of stealing $500,000 from two companies. Navalny has long denied the allegations, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the case was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” and that the brothers had been denied the right to a fair trial. 

Navalny was sentenced to three and a half years suspended sentence, 10 months of which was already served under house arrest. As part of the terms of his sentence, Navalny was required to check in with the Russian prison service twice a month until Dec. 30, 2020, conditions that authorities now say the opposition leader violated—while in a coma recuperating from his near-death poisoning in Germany.  

On Tuesday, Navalny was ordered to serve his full sentence in a penal colony, minus the 10 months already spent under house arrest. 

Another case that alleges that Navalny stole donations from his supporters is also reportedly being prepared and, if he is convicted, could see him sentenced for up to 10 more years imprisonment, Bloomberg reports

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Tag: Russia

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