Kremlin critic Navalny ordered to pay fine in defamation case

Ruling follows another judge rejecting appeal over jail term for violating probation

A Moscow court has ordered Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to pay a fine in a defamation case.

The ruling came hours after another judge rejected the top Kremlin critic’s appeal over his prison sentence for violating the terms of his probation.

The court convicted Navalny on charges of slandering a second World War veteran and ordered him to pay a fine of 850,000 rubles (€9,500).

Navalny, who called the 94-year-old veteran and other people featured in a pro-Kremlin video last year “corrupt stooges”, “people without conscience” and “traitors”, has rejected the slander charges and described them as part of official efforts to disparage him.

Earlier on Saturday, Navalny lost his appeal over a prison sentence for violating the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning which he blames on the Kremlin.

A Moscow City Court judge reduced the sentence from two years and eight months to just over two and a half years.

The verdict came even as the country faces a top European rights court’s order to free Navalny.

Fiery speech

During the first court hearing, Navalny urged Russians to stand up to the Kremlin in a fiery speech which made references to the Bible and the US animated sitcom Rick And Morty, and compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort.

The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and Mr Putin’s most vocal critic, was arrested on January 17th upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from the poisoning.

His sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction which Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny has been held in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison, but Russian news reports said that after losing his appeal, he would likely be sent to a prison in the western part of Russia within the next few days to serve out his sentence.

His arrest and imprisonment have fuelled a huge wave of protests across Russia.

Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.

In his speech at the hearing, Navalny urged Russians to resist pressure from authorities and challenge the Kremlin to build a fairer and more prosperous country.

“The government’s task is to scare you and then persuade you that you are alone,” he said.

“Our Voldemort in his palace also wants me to feel cut off,” he added, in a reference to Mr Putin.

“To live is to risk it all,” he said, citing Rick And Morty. “Otherwise, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.”

Navalny also addressed the judge and the prosecutor, arguing that they could have a much better life in a new Russia.

“Just imagine how wonderful life would be without constant lying,” he said.

“Imagine how great it would be to work as a judge ... when no-one would be able to call you and give you directions what verdicts to issue.”

He insisted that he was unable to report to the authorities in line with his probation requirements while he was convalescing in Germany after his poisoning, emphasising that he returned to Russia immediately after his health allowed.

“I wasn’t hiding,” he said. “The entire world knew where I was.”

Navalny said he was an atheist before but has come to believe in God, adding that his faith helped him face his challenges.

He said he believed the Bible phrase that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, and that he felt no regret about deciding to return home to Russia.

“Even though our country is built on injustice and we all constantly face injustice ... we also see that millions of people, tens of millions of people, want righteousness,” Navalny told the court.

“They want the righteousness, and sooner or later they will have it.”

Asked about the impact of Navalny's prison sentence on Russia's politics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the country's "rich and multifaceted" political scene will develop regardless of the verdict.

Western criticism

Russia has rejected Western criticism of Navalny’s arrest and the crackdown on demonstrations as meddling in its internal affairs.

In a ruling on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered the Russian government to release Navalny, citing “the nature and extent of risk to the applicant’s life”.

The Strasbourg-based court noted that Navalny has contested Russian authorities’ argument that they had taken sufficient measures to safeguard his life and wellbeing in custody following the nerve agent attack.

The Russian government has rebuffed the European court’s demand, describing the ruling as unlawful, and amounting to “inadmissible” meddling in Russia’s affairs.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Russian justice ministry sent a letter to the court on Saturday, asking it to revise its order.

In the past, Moscow has abided by ECHR rulings, awarding compensation to Russian citizens who have contested verdicts in Russian courts, but it never faced a demand by the European court to set a convict free.

In a sign of its long-held annoyance with the Strasbourg court’s verdicts, Russia last year adopted a constitutional amendment declaring the priority of national legislation over international law.

Russian authorities might now use that provision to reject the ECHR’s ruling.

Navalny said at the hearing that his accusers “will burn in hell”. – AP