Alexei Navalny fears life in prison after Russia brings fresh charges

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he faced life in prison after being charged with terrorism, an escalation of Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent following last year’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian investigators had told Navalny he would be tried by a military court for alleged terrorist attacks he is accused of committing while in prison, Navalny told a court hearing on Wednesday. He was speaking via video link from his prison cell ahead of a trial for “extremism” that he has already been charged with.

“They have made absurd accusations under which I face 30 years in prison,” Navalny said on Wednesday, according to a transcript posted by supporters. “Holding a closed trial [ . . . ] is an attempt to make sure nobody knows about it.”

Though the charges have not been officially announced, the move by prosecutors appears to confirm what Navalny allies had feared all along — that Putin’s regime plans to keep the country’s most prominent opposition figure and one of the most outspoken voices against the war in Ukraine behind bars indefinitely.

Navalny, 46, was arrested in 2021 upon his return from Germany where he was recovering from an assassination attempt against him while visiting Siberia using a weapons-grade nerve agent. He was subsequently charged with nearly a dozen criminal offences and convicted of fraud in June, when he was moved to a maximum-security prison in Melekhovo, 250km east of Moscow.

This month, Navalny’s team said they feared he had been poisoned again after falling seriously ill in prison, where he has been sent to solitary confinement 15 times. His supporters say the conditions he is kept in at the prison, which is infamous for the alleged abuse of prisoners, amount to torture.

Putin has said Navalny is a CIA puppet used by the US to destroy Russia. In the months that followed Navalny’s arrest, Russian security services smashed his nationwide Anti-Corruption Foundation.

After last year’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin ordered an even tougher crackdown: dissent against the war is essentially outlawed, while so much as viewing anti-war content or discussing it in private can carry harsh prison sentences.

Navalny, who rose to fame as a crusading anti-corruption campaigner and then led unprecedented street protests against Putin’s regime, has said he expects to remain in prison for as long as the Russian president remains in power.

He has jokingly compared himself to Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid campaigner who became a global icon during his 27-year prison stint in South Africa and emerged to become the country’s president.

The new charges also appear aimed at silencing Navalny’s voice from within the Russian prison system. If convicted for terrorism, he could be transferred to another top level-security facility alongside convicts serving life sentences, where his contact with supporters would be curtailed even further.

Ivan Zhdanov, head of Navalny’s exiled foundation, said investigators had come up with the terrorism charge following the death of a pro-war military blogger in a bombing at a café in St Petersburg in April.

Zhdanov said it was unclear what form the terrorism charges would take, but added they could carry life imprisonment if Navalny was accused of organising attacks such as the murder of the blogger.

Several of Navalny’s exiled allies are also being charged in their absence with extremism. Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov said he was charged with “justifying terrorism” for praising Claus von Stauffenberg, the Wehrmacht officer who led a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and saying that killing Putin would be “the right and legal thing to do”.

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