Russian authorities have fast-tracked an arrest hearing for top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny who was detained at a Moscow airport on Sunday evening after he returned to Russia for the first time after his near-fatal poisoning.
Russian authorities scrambled to disrupt a hero’s welcome for the 44-year-old opposition leader, arresting several dozen of his supporters at one Moscow airport before re-routing his flight to another airport on the other side of town without much explanation.
Mr Navalny was detained at passport control at the Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday under an arrest warrant from Russian prison authorities who claimed that he violated the terms of his bail while he was recovering from the August poisoning in Germany.
Western nations have urged Russia to immediately free Mr Navalny, who was detained on Sunday at a Moscow airport after flying home for the first time since he was poisoned last summer.
Authorities stunned Mr Navalny’s legal team early Monday afternoon, informing them of a court hearing to be held inside a police station a few moments after the summons were served.
Russian authorities raised the stakes ahead of Mr Navalny’s arrival by announcing a new criminal probe against him while prison authorities said earlier this month that they had issued an arrest warrant for him, accusing him of failing to report to his probation officer at the end of December as his suspended sentence ran out.
The unprecedented court hearing at the police station that began on Monday is considering a request to convert Mr Navalny’s suspended sentence into jail time.
“I was brought out of my cell a moment ago to meet my lawyer,” Mr Navalny said in a video recorded and released by his spokeswoman at the start of the court hearing. “What is happening is just impossible. It’s lawlessness of the highest degree.”
The opposition politician, who has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for exposing official graft and organising major protest rallies, fell suddenly ill on a domestic flight in Russia in August and spent weeks in a coma before recovering.
He accused Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, of ordering the attack on him and contributed to an investigation by independent investigative group Bellingcat that identified several Russian intelligence agents allegedly behind the operation to kill him.
The Kremlin denies any involvement and Russian investigators have said there are no grounds to launch a probe.
Yulia Navalnaya, the politician’s wife, who traveled back to Russia with him on Sunday, wrote a message of support for her husband on Monday.
“When you got poisoned, I wrote that we have always managed to deal with things, and we will deal with this, too,” she said on Instagram.
“I can only say the same thing now, and you will probably have the time to read it this time: there’s nothing that we can’t deal with. Everything will be all right.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Monday condemned Mr Navalny’s arrest as “appalling”, calling for the Kremlin critic’s release.
“It is appalling that Alexey Navalny, the victim of a despicable crime, has been detained by Russian authorities,” Mr Raab wrote on Twitter.
“He must be immediately released. Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he added.
Mr Raab has joined the growing calls of condemnation from across the Western world, adding his voice to his German and American counterparts.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Russia should “immediately” release Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny after his detention at a Moscow airport.
Mr Navalny ”took the conscious decision to return to Russia because he sees it as his personal and political home”, Mr Mass said, adding it was “totally incomprehensible” that the Russian authorities arrested him on his arrival Sunday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the United States “strongly condemns” the arrest.
“The United States strongly condemns Russia’s decision to arrest Aleksey Navalny,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement.
“We note with grave concern that his detention is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Mr Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities.”
The US joined the European Union in condemning the move, with Mr Pompeo saying that “Mr Navalny is not the problem. We demand his immediate and unconditional release.”
“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor commit violence against or wrongfully detain political opponents,” he added.
The United States, the European Union, several EU governments, Canada and a senior aide to US President-elect Joe Biden immediately called for his release, with some in the EU urging new sanctions against Moscow.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, joined the chorus of condemnation.
“Detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments,” she said.
“We also continue to expect a thorough and independent investigation on the attack on Alexei Navalny’s life.”
Rights groups joined the calls, with Amnesty International saying Mr Navalny had become a prisoner of conscience and accusing Russian authorities of waging “a relentless campaign” to silence him.
Germany also wanted Russia to “investigate thoroughly the (poison) attack and bring the perpetrators to justice”, the minister said.
Russia’s FSIN prison service said Mr Navalny was wanted for “multiple violations” of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud, adding that “he will be held in custody” until a court ruling.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said they wanted the European Union’s foreign ministers to discuss further sanctions against Russia on Monday for detaining Navalny.
A possible target of any new penalties would be Nord Stream 2, a $11.6 billion project to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The Russian Foreign Ministry brushed off all the criticism.
“Respect international law, do not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.