The United States and the European Union have demanded the release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from detention.
Navalny, 44, a thorn in Putin’s flesh for the last decade, was detained soon after his flight from Germany landed in Moscow on Sunday.
Navalny has been a huge critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, with the international community concerned over his safety in the country.
After his poisoning with military-grade Novichok in August, a joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning, as the investigation showed how an elite unit at the secret agency followed Navalny’s team throughout a trip to Siberia, where Navalny was poisoned and fell ill on a flight to Moscow.
The investigation also found that this unit, which included chemical weapons experts, had followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017.
Russia completely denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning despite the fact that Russia is the only country that still products and posseses Novichok, a military grade nerve agent that paralyzes and ultimately kills a person that ingests it.
Putin said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.
Navalny, an outspoken fearless blogger, has millions of Russian followers on social media and managed to get some supporters elected to local councils in Siberia in 2020.
He attempted to stand in the 2018 presidential race, but was barred because of an embezzlement conviction that he says was politically motivated
Russia’s prison service said the Kremlin critic had violated the terms of his suspended sentence for embezzlement, and that he would remain in custody until a court ruling.
A court hearing was organised on Monday, January 18, at a police station on the outskirts of Moscow. In a video released by his spokeswoman, Navalny described the hearing as “lawlessness of the highest grade”.
The US and European Union led calls for Mr Navalny to be freed, but stopped short of threatening any punitive action.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said Russian authorities were trying to silence their critics, while incoming US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan said the Kremlin’s “attacks on Mr Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard”.
France, Italy, Germany and the president of the European Commission were also among those calling for his release.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described Mr Navalny’s arrest as “appalling”.
“Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he said.
Russia’s foreign minister dismissed condemnation of the arrest.
Sergei Lavrov said Western politicians were using the case to “divert attention” from domestic problems.
After recovering from treatment, Navalny said he intended to return to Russia.
On Sunday January 17, he returned home despite warnings he would face arrest on landing.
Shortly before landing, the pilot announced that for “technical reasons”, the plane was being diverted from Vnukovo airport, where thousands of Navalny supporters had gathered, to Sheremetyevo airport, causing a stir among the passengers, who were mostly journalist.
After a ride in a bus from the plane to the airport, he reportedly told journalist around him he was not afraid and was very happy to return home.
As he approached passport control with his wife Yulia, he reportedly said to the border control officer with a smile: “You must have been waiting for me for a long time!” And it was probably true.
A few moments later, he was asked by masked policemen to accompany them or they would have to use “force”.
The activist was later taken to a police station in Moscow, where he spent the night.
Russia’s prison service said the opposition leader “had been wanted since 29 December 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period” related to his suspended sentence for embezzlement.
Separately, Russian prosecutors have launched a new criminal case against Navalny on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various charities, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Putin often claims that Alexei Navalny isn’t popular with the Russian people and he’s not a serious rival but his return home five months after being poisoned sparked a major police operation on Sunday, January 17.
In chaotic scenes, riot police pushed Navalny’s supporters out of the arrivals hall of Vnukovo airport, before the flight was rerouted.
Political analysts believe his decision to return home is a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin -and creates a dilemma for the Kremlin.