RUSSIA

Russian Court Jails Brother of Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

RUSSIA
Dec 30, 2014 at 8:48 AM ET

Vladimir Putin just took a hostage.

That’s what Kremlin critics are saying this morning after a Moscow court jailed Oleg Navalny, the younger brother of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, for 3.5 years on hotly disputed fraud charges.

“Why are you jailing him? To punish me even more?” shouted Alexei Navalny, with tears in his eyes, as the judge read out the decision to a packed court. Outside the courthouse, which riot police had cordoned off, pro-Putin youth and opposition supporters traded insults and the occasional blow in freezing temperatures.

“This is called taking hostages,” said Grigory Alburov, a member of Navalny’s anti-corruption organization, outside the court. “This is an outrage. They are putting pressure on Alexei’s family.”

Alexei Navalny, a 38-year-old lawyer who led mass streets protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012, was also charged with the same crime as his brother: defrauding the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. But in an unexpected turn of events, he was handed a 3.5-year suspended sentence instead of jail time.

Alburov reckons that jailing the elder Navalny was potentially too risky for Putin to stomach, and that jailing his younger brother was a way to deliver the message without as much fallout. “It’s clear the authorities were afraid that if they jailed Navalny, they would spark a huge protest. But people will come out on the streets anyway tonight to support all the political prisoners in Russia, including Oleg Navalny.”

Oleg Navalny will not be released until after the 2018 presidential elections, in which Putin could gain a fourth term that would keep him in power until 2024. Alexei Navalny, meanwhile, has made no secret of his political ambitions.

Both Navalny brothers have denied the allegations. Yves Rocher employees have testified that no crime was committed, while the company’s Russia director reportedly fled the country ahead of the verdict.

Navalny supporters plan to protest the ruling in central Moscow later today. Over 18,000 people have so far indicated on a Facebook event page that they will attend the unsanctioned rally. Unlike ahead of most previous anti-Putin protests, the mood is confrontational: “What shall we bring? Tires, white ribbons, axes?” asked one opposition activist.

Others gave advice on how best to prepare Molotov cocktails and compared the Kremlin’s apparent tactics to those of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. “Stalin also loved to jail wives and relatives,” tweeted an opposition figure after the sentence. “Just in case.”

The Kremlin has not commented on Tuesday’s court ruling.

“The authorities are deliberately torturing the relatives of their political opponents,” a furious Navalny announced after the verdict, speaking on the steps of the courthouse. “Authorities like these have no right to exist. They must be destroyed. I call on everyone to take to the streets today and stay there until they are removed from power.”

The announcement of the verdict was shifted from Jan. 15 to Dec. 30 in a surprise decision by authorities. Some 33,000 people had earlier indicated on a Facebook event page that they would rally near the Kremlin after the verdict. After the verdict was moved up, another Facebook page was created for this evening’s protest. Facebook came under fire after it blocked the original event page for the rally—apparently at the request of the Russian authorities. It has made no move to block subsequent pages.

Navalny will not be attending this evening’s protest, however. He remains under house arrest, where he has been since February, until his appeal against today’s ruling is heard. State prosecutors have also indicated that they may appeal the sentence, which some pro-Putin lawmakers have criticized as too soft.

With just hours left until the planned protest, a heavy police presence is visible on the streets of central Moscow. Trucks carrying riot police have been spotted streaming toward the Kremlin all afternoon.

An attempt by the authorities to jail Navalny for five years on separate fraud charges in the summer of 2013 sparked a mass rally near the Kremlin, after which he was released from custody and his sentence suspended. Opposition supporters are hoping this evening’s protest will see the authorities relent and release Oleg Navalny.

 

“Oleg Navalny has two children. One is just over a year old,” tweeted Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with Navalny’s Fund for Fighting Corruption.

But whatever the outcome of today’s unsanctioned protest, human rights workers in Russia are concerned that a disturbing precedent has been set.

“Now no one can be certain of the safety of their loved ones,” said Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, a Russian human rights group. “The rule that relatives will not be touched has been annulled.”