Alexei Navalny has appeared in a Moscow court for the second time this week, this time on a charge of defaming a second world war veteran.
The Russian opposition leader, who was ordered earlier this week to serve two years and eight months in prison, criticised the latest hearing as a “disgusting PR trial” intended by the Kremlin to disparage him.
Last June, Russia’s investigative committee launched an investigation into Navalny on charges of defamation, after the politician called people featured in a video promoting the constitutional reform that allowed an extension to President Vladimir Putin’s rule “corrupt stooges” “people without conscience” and “traitors”.
The authorities maintained that Navalny’s comments “denigrate (the) honour and dignity” of a war veteran featured in the video. If convicted, Navalny faces a fine or community service.
“This trial was conceived as some kind of PR trial, because the Kremlin needs headlines, ‘Navalny slandered a veteran’,” the politician said in the courtroom Friday.
Last month, the 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator and Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities rejected the accusations.
A Moscow court on Tuesday found Navalny violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction, and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison.
The politician’s arrest and jailing triggered massive protests across Russia, in which tens of thousands took to the streets to demand his release. Many protesters also chanted slogans against Putin in the largest show of discontent in years. Thousands of protesters have been detained.
The European Union’s top diplomat said on Friday that the bloc’s ties with Russia had reached a new low following the jailing of Navalny, but still raised hopes for cooperation.
In Moscow for talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell repeated European calls for Navalny’s release and an investigation into his poisoning last year.
“Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment,” Borrell told Lavrov, adding that EU-Russia ties are “under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point.”
The west has fiercely condemned a Russian court’s decision this week to jail the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner for nearly three years, and a crackdown on pro-Navalny protesters that has seen more than 10,000 people arrested in recent weeks.
Borrell however said there were no immediate plans for new European sanctions and both he and Lavrov stressed that the two sides would continue to work together on issues including the coronavirus pandemic.
His visit was the first to Russia by a senior EU envoy since 2017, following years of deteriorating relations sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report