A Russian judge has begun a hearing into the detention of Alexei Navalny at a makeshift courtroom inside a police station as EU member states threatened new sanctions against Moscow if the opposition activist was not released.
Mr Navalny was detained by police at Moscow’s main airport on Sunday evening after returning from Germany where he had recovered from an assassination attempt blamed on the Kremlin, sparking widespread condemnation from western governments.
With independent media barred from entering the improvised courtroom and his own lawyer only informed of the hearing minutes before it began, Russia’s prison service asked that President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic be jailed for allegedly breaching the terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 fraud conviction.
“It is impossible, what is happening here is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Mr Navalny said in a video filmed as the hearing began and posted on Twitter by his spokesperson. “They just defiantly tore up the criminal code and threw into the trash.”
Mr Navalny’s supporters say his arrest is designed to prevent him from campaigning ahead of critical parliamentary elections in September, with Mr Putin’s ruling party polling at record lows.
Authorities told the court, hastily assembled in the police station where Mr Navalny was held overnight, that he missed judicial meetings last year mandated under his 2014 conviction, arguing that as a result the three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence should be converted to jail time. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the 2014 conviction was politically motivated.
The move to rapidly push ahead with the court hearing comes as the EU demanded Russia release the 44-year-old opposition campaigner.
Lithuania and Estonia on Monday urged fellow EU member states to impose sanctions should Mr Navalny not be swiftly released.
The two Baltic countries raised the matter at a regular meeting of the bloc’s foreign and Europe ministers, diplomats told the Financial Times, in line with a similar public statement they and their neighbour Latvia made after Mr Navalny was detained on Sunday while passing through passport control.
“It seems that Navalny, who dared to challenge the government, has made another most unfortunate mistake. He has survived,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.
The EU could discuss its reaction to Mr Navalny’s arrest at a pre-scheduled video summit of EU leaders on Thursday and a meeting of foreign ministers next week.
Both Mike Pompeo, the outgoing US secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, condemned the arrest and called for Mr Navalny’s release.
“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” Mr Pompeo wrote on Twitter.
Mr Navalny was returning from Berlin after recovering from a poison attack using novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, in August. He and European governments have blamed the attack on the Kremlin, but Moscow has denied any involvement and claimed he could have been poisoned outside Russia.
The bloc has already imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials over their alleged involvement in his poisoning. It could add other targeted countermeasures against Russian individuals and institutions.
Russia’s rouble, which is sensitive to western sanction threats, slipped as much as 1.4 per cent against the euro on Monday.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said “a quick and unequivocal response at EU level is essential,” while Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, said he would “propose a discussion on possible sanctions”.
But any proposal for wider-ranging sanctions on Russia would be likely to be more contentious, given internal EU divisions over how to deal with the Kremlin. The bloc imposed economic countermeasures after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although some member states are reluctant supporters of them.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, described Mr Navalny’s detention as “unacceptable” and called for his immediate release.
Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, echoed that view. “It’s completely incomprehensible that he was arrested immediately after his arrival by the Russian authorities,” he said.
“Russia is, through its own constitution and through its international obligations, bound to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights. These principles must of course apply to Alexei Navalny, too. He should be released immediately.”
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, called for Mr Navalny’s immediate release: “Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he added.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said western criticism of Mr Navalny’s detention was to “divert attention” from a crisis in liberal democracy.
“We can see how they have jumped at yesterday’s news about Navalny’s return to Russia, and we can see how gladly the comments, which replicate one another, are being made,” he told reporters on Monday.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and James Shotter in Warsaw