Russia Court to Weigh Jailing Navalny as Putin Battles Dissent

A Moscow district court is due to decide whether to jail Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny for as long as 3 1/2 years Tuesday, as President Vladimir Putin seeks to crush a resurgence in protests against his rule.

The court is to rule on demands by penal authorities and prosecutors that Navalny, 44, serve time instead of the suspended sentence he received for a 2014 fraud conviction, for alleged violations of his probation. Navalny’s supporters have vowed to gather outside the court during the hearing.

Navalny was detained in mid-January as he returned from Germany, where he recovered from a near-fatal nerve-agent attack that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s security service. The Kremlin denies responsibility. A prison term risks escalating the confrontation between the authorities and opposition protesters that has already resulted in thousands of detentions at rallies in dozens of cities nationwide in the last two weekends.

The U.S. and the European Union have called on Russia to release Navalny. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his detention “profoundly disturbing” in an interview Sunday with MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” The EU’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, has said he’ll raise the case when he visits Moscow for talks this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Riot police were accused of using electric shock devices against some people at the latest protests on Sunday amid allegations of a particularly harsh response. There were 5,646 detentions, adding to nearly 3,600 at Jan. 23 protests, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group.

Navalny received the suspended sentence in a fraud trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher that also led to a 3 1/2 year jail term for his younger brother, Oleg. Both men denied wrongdoing, and the European Court of Human Rights has called the case politically motivated.

As well as the threat of a jail term , Navalny also faces possible new fraud charges that could carry an additional 10-year punishment.

Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny: QuickTake

Putin, 68, has been in power since 2000, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In July, he pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to stay as president until 2036. Last year his support fell to a record low amid the Covid-19 downturn, and the continuing slide in incomes is weighing on the Russian leader’s popularity, pollsters say.

Gross domestic product contracted 3.1% last year, the biggest slump since 2009, the Federal Statistics Service reported Monday. Still, Russia suffered a smaller decline than most major economies after the government opted not to reimpose a lockdown in the second half of the year.

Navalny raised the focus on officials’ opulent lifestyles in a video released after his arrest that got more than 100 million views and alleged that Putin owns a giant $1.3 billion Black Sea palace. Putin dismissed the claim and a billionaire ally, Arkady Rotenberg, said last week that he is the beneficial owner of the residence.

While Putin has survived several past outbursts of anti-Kremlin protests, the opposition is digging in for a long-term struggle ahead of 2024, when he must decide whether to seek a fifth presidential term. Backers of Navalny say he’ll become a potent symbol of resistance behind bars.

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