Putin’s fiercest critic Alexei Navalny boards plane for Moscow despite threats of arrest and jail when he lands five months after he nearly died from Novichok poisoning
- Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny has boarded a plane from back to Moscow
- He was in Berlin for treatment after being poisoned with nerve agent Novichok
- But country’s prison service said it was ‘obliged to take all actions to detain’
- Navalny claimed Putin ‘told servants to do everything they can’ to stop his return
Alexei Navalny has boarded a plane bound for Moscow, despite Russian authorities’ stated desire to arrest him and potentially jail him for years.
Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics, was flown to Berlin in August for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned with what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent.
He announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, and a day later Moscow’s prison service said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.
The 44-year-old, who boarded a plane in Berlin at the last minute from a car sitting on the tarmac, hence avoiding other passengers, said he was delighted to be flying home and made light of the risk of being arrested.
Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics, has boarded a plane bound for Moscow, despite Russian authorities’ stated desire to arrest him and potentially jail him for years
Navalny was accompanied by his wife Yulia, and his spokeswoman. He announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, and a day later Moscow’s prison service said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned
He said he didn’t think he would be arrested when the Pobeda airlines flight lands this afternoon, calling himself an innocent person
Earlier this week, authorities asked a Moscow court to turn Navalny’s suspended sentence on fraud charges into real jail time for violating the terms of his sentence.
FSIN said that Navalny was obliged to report to them at least twice a month as part of his probation period that ended on December 29 last year.
It added that in 2020 Navalny did not report for registration on six occasions.
‘For each violation by A.A. Navalny official warnings were issued about the possibility of the suspended sentence being cancelled and replaced with real incarceration,’ the prison service added.
‘This is the best moment in the last five months,’ he told reporters who had bought seats on the same plane carrying him back to Moscow. ‘I feel great. Finally, I’m returning to my home town.’
Pictured: Police patrol the arrivals hall prior to Alexei Navalny’s arrival, in Vnukovo airport outside Moscow
People have already started to gather in the terminal building of Moscow’s Vnukovo airport where Mr Navalny is expected to arrive
The opposition politician, who says he has nearly fully recovered, says Putin (pictured) was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he is free to return to Russia
He said he didn’t think he would be arrested, calling himself an innocent person.
‘What do I need to be afraid of? What bad thing can happen to me in Russia?’ he added. ‘I feel like a citizen of Russia who has every right to return,’ he added.
He was accompanied by his wife Yulia, and his spokeswoman.
Navalny, who is hoping for success in parliamentary elections in September, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.
His return poses a conundrum for the Kremlin: jail him and risk protests and punitive Western action by turning him into a political martyr. Or do nothing and risk looking weak in the eyes of Kremlin hardliners.
He is expected to arrive in Moscow soon after 4pm this afternoon (GMT).
The opposition politician, who says he has nearly fully recovered, says Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he is free to return to Russia.
Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him. The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the ‘Berlin patient,’ laughs that off. Putin allies point to opinion polls that show the Russian leader is far more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.
Navalny took a flight operated by Russian airline Pobeda, owned by state-controlled Aeroflot.
Russia has vowed to arrest opposition leader Alexei Navalny (pictured at the office of his Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2019) if he carries out his promise to return to the country on Sunday
Airlift: Navalny arrives in Berlin two days after his poisoning on August 20, by which time his heart had slowed to 33 beats per minute and his body temperature was down to 33.5C (92.3F)
His supporters plan to meet him at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport despite a forecast of bitterly cold minus 20 Celsius weather and over 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.
So far, at least 2,000 people have used a Facebook page to say they plan to be there, with another 6,000 expressing an interest. Pro-Kremlin activists are also expected to turn up.
The Moscow prosecutor’s office, which says it has officially warned 15 pro-Navalny organisers, has said the event is illegal because it is not sanctioned by the authorities. That means that people who turn up could be detained, fined or jailed.
Reuters reporters saw a heavy police presence at the airport with dozens of police trucks.
Citing COVID-19 restrictions, the airport has said it will not allow media inside.
Last month, Russia’s prison service ordered Navalny to fly back from Germany and report at a Moscow office or be jailed if he failed to return before a deadline
Navalny with his wife and children after waking from his coma at the Berlin hospital where doctors say his previous good health contributed to his recovery
Navalny fell ill on a plane in Siberia on August 20 and was airlifted two Germany two days later, where a military lab found evidence of Novichok.
The Kremlin has rejected calls to open a full investigation into the poisoning, and denied Navalny’s claims that the FSB security agency was behind the plot.
Navalny Tweeted on Tuesday: ‘Putin is so mad at me for surviving his poisoning that he ordered the Federal Penitentiary Service to replace my suspended sentence with a real one.’
Last month, Russia’s prison service ordered him to fly back from Germany and report at a Moscow office or be jailed if he failed to return before a deadline.
The country’s federal prison service accused him of violating the terms of a suspended sentence dating from 2014.
It came just a day before the end of a probation period for the three-and-a-half-year prison term over a theft case which Navalny says was politically motivated.
‘The convicted man is not fulfilling all of the obligations placed on him by the court, and is evading the supervision of the Criminal Inspectorate,’ a statement said.
The prison service stated no deadline, but Navalny posted a screenshot of a message to his lawyer which said he had until 9am on December 29 to show up at a Moscow office.
His spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said it was impossible for Navalny to return in time and accused the prison service of acting on orders from the Kremlin.
Navalny’s allies have pointed the finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin (pictured) after the opposition leader fell ill, but the Kremlin has dismissed the claims
She said at the time: ‘There’s no way he could appear at the Moscow Criminal Inspectorate tomorrow.
‘But does the [prison service] really care about common sense? They were given an order, they are fulfilling it.’
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for more than a decade, exposing what he says is high-level corruption and mobilising protests.
He has been repeatedly detained for organising public meetings, sued over corruption investigations and was barred from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election.
The 44-year-old has also served several stints in jail in recent years for organising anti-Kremlin protests.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russia’s arrests and detention of Navalny in 2012 and 2014 were politically motivated.
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