Russian police detained opposition leader Alexey Navalny, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, as he arrived in Moscow after being treated in Germany for poisoning, drawing immediate criticism from the US and Europe.
Navalny, 44, was met by officers at passport control as he landed in Moscow on a plane from Berlin, according to a live video feed on his YouTube channel. The Federal Penitentiary Service said he had been detained for violating the
terms of a suspended sentence, state-run Tass reported.
“This is my home,” he told reporters who’d traveled with him Sunday shortly before he was detained. “I’m not scared of anything.” Navalny boarded the flight knowing that he could face a lengthy prison term if he returned.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo — who departs with the rest of the Trump administration on Wednesday — condemned Russia’s decision and called for Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, echoing similar demands from the European Union and Biden’s incoming national
“We note with grave concern that his detention is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Navalny, whose anti-corruption exposes and success in galvanising anti-government votes have increasingly needled the authorities, had been recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent attack in August that he and Western governments blamed on Putin.
Surrounded by Russian law enforcement upon landing in Moscow, Navalny kissed his wife, Yuliya, goodbye before walking off with police. Authorities said he would be held pending a court decision on his sentence set for January 29. He spent the night in a cell in a police station in Khimki, a Moscow suburb near the airport, but hadn’t been given access to a lawyer, his allies said.
Dozens of his supporters were detained by police at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, where he had appealed to them to meet him. The flight was diverted to another airport shortly before arrival.
The move to imprison the most prominent opponent of the Russian president marks the biggest crackdown by Putin in recent years. Coming days before US President-elect Biden takes office, it could trigger an immediate clash with the new Democratic administration.
Jake Sullivan, incoming President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, blasted the Kremlin and called for Navalny’s release.
Navalny returned home amid rising political tension ahead of Russian parliamentary elections this autumn and support for the Kremlin falters amid the coronavirus downturn. Putin, 68, whose two-decade rule makes him the longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, last year overturned term limits, allowing him to stay in power until 2036. Speculation that he may step down far sooner is building.
“There were only two choices for Navalny — to stay in Germany or come home. If he remained an émigré, in Russia people would quickly lose interest in him,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “His calculation is he’ll become a symbol of resistance behind bars and a big risk for Putin.”
European Council President Charles Michel, who speaks for the EU on foreign affairs, called Navalny’s detention unacceptable. It’s “yet another attempt to intimidate the democratic opposition in Russia,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Facebook.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are calling on the EU to “consider imposition of restrictive measures” on Russia if Navalny isn’t freed, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Twitter.