Navalny's supporters say legal cases against the 44-year-old are a pretext to silence his corruption exposes
Moscow (AFP) - The Kremlin’s most prominent opponent Alexei Navalny faced two court decisions on Saturday that could seal a judge’s ruling to jail him for several years, after he returned to Russia following a poisoning attack.
A Moscow court was hearing Navalny’s appeal against a decision this month to imprison him for nearly three years for violating the terms of a suspended sentence on embezzlement charges.
He was ordered on February 2 to serve the time in a penal colony, for breaching the parole terms of the sentence while in Germany recovering from the poisoning.
As his appeal hearing began on Saturday, Navalny rejected the decision to jail him since he made no secret of his whereabouts in Germany and returned voluntarily to Russia.
“The whole question is, was I hiding or not hiding?” he told the court.
“I bought a ticket and told everyone: I’m going home… This is just absurd.”
Russian opposition leader Navalny and his wife Yulia on January 17, flying back to Moscow from Berlin where he was treated for poisoning
Even if Navalny wins his appeal Saturday, his victory could be short-lived.
Prosecutors in a separate trial have called for him to be fined the equivalent of $13,000 for calling a World War II veteran a “traitor” on Twitter last year, with a verdict also expected Saturday.
They have also asked Navalny to be jailed on the same fraud conviction, saying his tweet referencing the veteran was posted during the probation period for the suspended sentence.
Supporters of the outspoken opposition figure say the rulings and several other cases against the 44-year-old are a pretext to silence his corruption exposes and quash his political ambitions.
- European court orders release -
The 94-year-old veteran at the centre of the defamation trial appeared in a video that Navalny derided for promoting constitutional reforms, passed last year, that could allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.
A series of theatrical hearings in the case ended Tuesday with Navalny asking if the judge could recommend a recipe for pickles, since it is “pointless to talk about the law” with her.
Russia has come under increasing pressure to release Navalny since he was detained on arrival at a Moscow airport in January.
Navalny's arrest sparked large protests across Russia
He had spent months recovering in Germany from the attack with Novichok that he blames on the Kremlin. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement.
The arrest sparked large protests across the country that saw more than 10,000 people detained, while the European Union threatened to impose new sanctions on Moscow.
Europe’s rights court ruled this week that Russia must immediately release Navalny, in a motion swiftly brushed aside by the justice ministry.
Navalny’s allies believe Russia’s non-compliance with the European Court of Human Rights ruling could lead to its expulsion from the Council of Europe – a broader grouping than the 27-member EU.
And it risks further exacerbating a crisis in Moscow’s westward ties that began with the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
EU member Lithuania’s foreign ministry said Friday that a group of EU foreign ministers will meet with two top Navalny aides in Brussels on Sunday.
Navalny aides in talks with EU representatives this month urged the bloc to hit people close to Putin with sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l) with businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed 'Putin's chef'
Another Moscow court this week rejected Navalny’s appeal against a fine of 3.3 million rubles ($44,649⁄36,825 euros) that he was ordered to pay a catering company in another defamation lawsuit.
Those charges were levelled at the opposition figure by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because his company Concord catered for the Kremlin.
The 59-year-old businessman, who is under US and European sanctions, has two pending cases against Navalny that will be considered in March.