Kremlin rejects calls to release Navalny, warns of protests

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MOSCOW, Russia | The Kremlin on Tuesday rejected Western demands to release opponent Alexei Navalny, who has been imprisoned since his return to Russia, and warned his supporters who plan to demonstrate at his call this weekend in Russia.

The 44-year-old anti-corruption activist was arrested on Sunday upon his return from Germany, where he was recovering from his suspected poisoning in August, for which he holds Vladimir Putin responsible, despite multiple denials by the authorities.

The main Western powers have called for his “immediate” release; moreover, they ask Moscow to explain itself on these charges of poisoning and to investigate this attempted assassination.

During a press briefing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Moscow “does not plan to take into consideration” Western calls to release the opponent.

“It is a totally internal matter and we will not allow anyone to interfere in it,” he added.

Alexei Navalny was imprisoned until at least February 15 as part of a procedure for violation of judicial control and detained in Moscow, in quarantine, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As soon as the imprisonment was announced, the opponent and his supporters called for demonstrations on Saturday, January 23, across the country.

The Kremlin spokesman ruled that such calls and gatherings could amount to “illegal activities”.

Any demonstration requires the agreement of the authorities in Russia. In addition, in a large part of the territory, including Moscow, mass gatherings are prohibited due to the pandemic.

A right-hand man of the opponent, Leonid Volkov, indicated that no request for authorization will be filed, the Russians having “a constitutional right” to demonstrate.

Gatherings are planned in many cities, from Moscow and St. Petersburg in the West, to Khabarovsk in the Far East via Ekaterinburg in the Urals.

Unauthorized opposition demonstrations often lead to brutal repression and numerous arrests.

Risk of arrests

Monday evening, at least 73 people were arrested during improvised support actions, according to the specialized NGO OVD-Info.

On Telegram, the political scientist Tatiana Stanovaïa estimated that the announced demonstrations “will perhaps not be very important in terms of number, but that they will be visible and would not weaken quickly”.

Mr. Navalny has long been in the crosshairs of the Russian authorities. He rose to fame with surveys published online into the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s elites and entourage.

Its notoriety nevertheless remains limited outside the most important urban centers and among the least connected generations.

On the political level, he was also preparing before his poisoning an active campaign for the legislative elections of September 2021, against a background of erosion of the popularity of the Kremlin party, United Russia.

Three European laboratories concluded that the opponent was poisoned by a military nerve agent from Novichok, developed in Soviet times.

Moscow rejected these findings and denounced a conspiracy, claiming that its scientists did not find any poison in the opponent’s body.

Since his return to Russia, Mr. Navalny has been under threat of legal proceedings which could result in prison terms of several years.

He is to be tried on Wednesday for defamation of a veteran of the Second World War.

He is accused of having disseminated information “false” and “insulting” with regard to this veteran who had expressed on television his support for the constitutional referendum of the summer strengthening the powers of President Vladimir Poutine.

But above all, he has another key judicial appointment. On February 2, a court will consider revoking a reprieve to which the opponent had been sentenced, paving the way for the possibility that he will serve part of a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, to which he was convicted in 2014.

Alexeï Navalny has also been targeted since the end of December by an investigation for “large-scale fraud”, an offense punishable by ten years’ imprisonment.

He considers these cases to be political.

He has been detained since Monday evening in the center of Matrosskaya Tichina, a famous Moscow prison in which the oligarch who became a sworn enemy of the Kremlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was imprisoned.

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