Russian opposition leader faces court hearing in police station

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces spending at least the next month in jail after a court hearing in a police station Monday, 12 hours after he was detained on his return to Russia, his supporters said.

Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, returned to the country Sunday after receiving treatment after being poisoned with what German scientists said was Novichok, a Russian-made chemical weapon, in August. He has accused the Russian state of being behind the poisoning, which it denies.

Navalny was detained due to alleged violations of a suspended prison sentence — he says the charge is false. He was due to go to trial on Jan. 29 and faces a possible three-and-a-half year jail sentence.

But Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter Monday morning that a trial had suddenly begun at the police station where he was being held, in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

While notionally a pre-trial hearing to review Navalny’s detention and not the full trial, the event’s swift and unexpected execution aroused fears among his supporters.

“The COURT [hearing] WILL BE TODAY. The lawyers have not yet seen Alexei. We assume that he can now be taken somewhere without them,” Yarmysh said, adding that the process was a “mockery of justice.”

Yarmysh tweeted a video of a perplexed Navalny reacting to the hearing.

“I don’t understand what is going on. I was brought out before the cameras one minute ago, while meeting with my lawyers. I was then brought here into this hearing,” he said.

Ivan Zhdanov, head of Navalny’s campaigning organization, said on Twitter that prosecutors on Monday applied for Navalny to remain in prison for 30 days, and then for the suspended jail term to be made a full sentence. That would keep the activist in prison until 2024.

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One of Navalny’s lawyers, Vadim Kobzev, tweeted a photo of a last-minute formal notice from the local police chief announcing the hearing — it lacked the usual letterhead and formatting, suggesting it was hastily thrown together.

Navalny was joined in the room only by one of his lawyers, while Yarmysh and a group of supporters and journalists were stuck outside the building.

His detention immediately upon his return to Russia, and general treatment by the Russian government, triggered condemnation from foreign officials.

Jake Sullivan, one of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s top aides, told Moscow to free Navalny.

The foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, France and Italy all called for Navalny’s release. Lithuania said on Sunday it would ask the E.U. to swiftly impose new sanctions on Russia. Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said he wanted the bloc to discuss possible sanctions.

In response to widespread international criticism of Navalny’s treatment, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook that critics must “respect international law.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the criticism was designed to distract from countries’ domestic problems.

Reuters contributed to this report

Patrick Smith reported from London, Matt Bodner reported from Moscow.

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