A Moscow court has sentenced Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a prison colony in a landmark decision for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the country’s leading opposition figure.
The move triggered marches in Moscow and the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters.
Navalny, who has accused the Russian president and his allies of stealing billions, was jailed for violating parole from a 2014 sentence for embezzlement in a case he has said was politically motivated.
After the verdict, several hundred Navalny supporters marched in central Moscow. Videos by local media or shared on social media showed police in body armour hitting protesters with staves. More than 1,000 people were arrested across the country in the course of the day, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-info.
The court’s decision makes Navalny the most prominent political prisoner in Russia and may be the most important verdict against a foe of Putin’s since the 2005 jailing of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Ahead of the verdict, Navalny looked across the court room to his wife Yulia, and traced a heart on the glass around the dock.
After a judge read the verdict, subtracting the 10 months he had spent under house arrest from his original three-and-a-half-year sentence, Yulia took off her mask, smiled, waved, and then shrugged.
“Don’t be sad! Everything’s going to be alright!” Navalny yelled to her. She declined to comment as she walked out of the courtroom, looking straight ahead.
Outside the courthouse, she stood next to Navalny’s two lawyers, Olga Mikhailova and Vladimir Kobzev. They said they planned to appeal to the European court of human rights. “You saw what happened in there,” Mikhailova said. “It was a horror, like always.”
The Kremlin’s decision to send Navalny to prison came despite the threat of further street protests and international condemnation from the US government and other foreign leaders. Diplomats from more than half a dozen western countries attended the court.
In a fiery speech from a Moscow city courtroom decorated with portraits of Cicero and Montesquieu ahead of the sentencing, Navalny had accused Putin of ordering his assassination with the poison novichok and said that the Russian leader’s “only method is killing people”.
The US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said Washington was “deeply concerned” and reiterated calls for Navalny’s unconditional and immediate release, saying it would coordinate with allies to hold Russia accountable.
Boris Johnson described the ruling as “pure cowardice,” which failed to meet “the most basic standards of justice”.
“Alexey Navalny must be released immediately,” he wrote.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, described it as a “bitter blow” to the rule of law in Russia.
The sentencing has shown the exhaustion of Russia’s leaders with Navalny, who even from jail released a detailed investigation into a £1bn Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin’s use.
He was arrested upon returning to Russia last month after surviving a suspected FSB assassination attempt in August 2020 with a novichok poison similar to that used in Salisbury in 2018.
Russian prison officials had said while Navalny recovered in Germany that they would seek to jail him for violating parole in the 2014 case in an apparent attempt to keep the Kremlin critic in exile, but he flew back all the same.