In new trial for fraud, Navalny swears to continue to fight against the Kremlin

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Tuesday he would continue to challenge Russia’s leaders when a new fraud trial begins that could extend his prison term by more than a decade.

Navalny appeared at the start of the hearing via video link dressed in a prison uniform and flanked by guards at the makeshift court inside his penal colony, smiling and embracing his wife.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the new case was “incompatible” with the rule of law, during a press conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The 45-year-old opposition leader has already been behind bars for a year after surviving a poison attack he blames on the Kremlin.

He is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for old embezzlement charges, but the new charges could see his time behind bars significantly extended.

“You are going to extend my sentence indefinitely. What can we do about it?” Navalny said during the hearing.

“People’s activities are more important than the fate of an individual. I’m not afraid.”

The new case was launched in December 2020, as Navalny was recovering in Germany after a poisoning attack with a Soviet-designed poison.

The Russian authorities have repeatedly had any involvement.

“Unlawful Persecution”

Rights groups have criticized authorities for holding the hearing behind closed doors inside the maximum security prison in Pokrov, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.

Investigators accuse Navalny of stealing for personal gain more than $4.7 million in donations that went to his political organizations. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

At trial, a prosecutor accused Navalny and his allies of “deceiving citizens” with the “deliberate” aim of stealing funds.

Navalny has attracted a large following among liberal-leaning Russians with videos exposing elite corruption. Many surveys have been viewed millions of times online.

Navalny’s allies denounced the trial as a sham and his lawyer said it was part of the Kremlin’s efforts to remove him from political life.

“We believe the persecution of Navalny is unlawful, is clearly political in nature and is aimed at discrediting him and removing him from any political activity,” lawyer Olga Mikhailova said.

“Incompatible” with the rule of law

The start of the trial comes amid a week of intensive talks between Russia and the West over Ukraine, with Scholz the latest leader in Moscow for talks with Putin.

In a news conference with the Russian leader, Scholz condemned the legal action against Navalny, following earlier calls from the opposition leader’s allies to raise his case with Putin.

“My position on the Navalny case is very clear: his judgment is inconsistent with the principles of the rule of law and I have expressed this view many times,” Scholz said.

Navalny was treated by medics in Berlin and Germany blamed his near-fatal poisoning on the Kremlin. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel used her last visit to Moscow last year to ask Putin to release Navalny.

On the eve of the hearing, Amnesty International criticized the “fictitious trial, attended by prison guards rather than the media”.

“It is obvious that the Russian authorities intend to ensure that Navalny does not come out of prison anytime soon,” he said on Monday.

Under separate charges, Navalny also faces up to six months in prison if found in contempt of court.

Navalny’s poisoning and arrest drew widespread condemnation abroad as well as sanctions from Western capitals.

After his arrest, Navalny’s political organizations across the country were declared “extremist” and shut down, while many key aides fled Russia for fear of prosecution.

Elna M. Lemons