EU states demand Russia release of Alexei Navalny

 EU states demand Russia release of Alexei Navalny

A bus ride across the runway apron and a brisk walk through the brightly lit terminal corridor was all the freedom Alexei Navalny was granted on his return to Russia before he was detained by police waiting for him at passport control.

The arrest of Mr Navalny, Russia’s most vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, was met with uniform condemnation from western governments, with a number of EU states threatening to impose sanctions if the Kremlin did not release the 44-year-old campaigner.

Mr Navalny was returning from Berlin after recovering from an assassination attempt 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 despite the use of the poison and claimed he could have been poisoned outside Russia.

Moscow arrested Mr Navalny on Sunday evening for allegedly breaching the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence, which could see him jailed for up to three and a half years.

Lithuania’s foreign ministry said the country would “immediately raise issues concerning the EU’s possible response to the detention and persecution of Navalny, and new sanctions against Russia”.

“It seems that Navalny, who dared to challenge the government, has made another most unfortunate mistake. He has survived,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, foreign minister.

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.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, described his 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.” 

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 calling for his 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.

The EU imposed sanctions on six officials it said were involved in the attack after western laboratories confirmed that Mr Navalny had been poisoned using a chemical weapon during a campaign visit to Siberia.

But some European politicians called on Brussels to do more.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said: “A quick and unequivocal response at EU level is essential. Respecting citizens’ rights is the basis of democracy.” 

Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, said he would “propose a discussion on possible sanctions” at a meeting of EU ministers, and accused Moscow of “violating international human rights treaties”.

Mr Navalny was separated from his wife and his lawyer at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and detained by officers before being transferred to a police station in the north of the city.

Russian authorities issued an arrest warrant for the anti-corruption campaigner after alleging that he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence by failing to appear at in-person meetings. A court was asked last week to change that sentence to a jail term.

The sentence relates to a 2014 fraud conviction that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled was politically motivated. Russia has also launched an investigation into new fraud allegations. If Mr Navalny is found guilty, he could be jailed for up to 10 years.

“I am not afraid,” Mr Navalny told reporters moments before he was detained. “I know I am right. I know that the criminal cases against me are fabricated.”

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, dismissed what she said were “pre-prepared comments” from foreign officials and called on them to “respect international law, do not encroach on the national legislation of sovereign states and deal with the problems in your own country”.

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