A lawyer and writer who has become one of the harshest Russian critics of Vladimir Putin was given a five-year prison term on Thursday, angering journalists and activists who say the charges are bogus. Alexey Navalny was taken away in handcuffs after a judge ruled that he was not being persecuted for political reasons, and that he was instead guilty of embezzling money from a state-owned timber company. Another co-defendant was given four years in jail.
Navalny, who organized some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in recent memory in 2011, also reported extensively on corruption in the Russian government, earning him a large following online and heavy-handed harassment from his opponents. Navalny was planning to run for mayor of Moscow this September — he withdrew immediately after the trial and called on voters to boycott — and had even expressed interest in running for president in 2018. Now the 37-year-old father of two could remain in jail until after that vote, when Putin (or his successor) could potentially be re-elected to a fourth term.
There is real shock coming from participants in protest movement, dormant lately, and from journalists, even those who predicted.— Ellen Barry (@EllenBarryNYT) July 18, 2013
Navalny, who ignored an order to shut off his phone, continued to tweet throughout the three-hour long reading of the verdict, saying in his final message, “Don’t miss me. The most important thing is not to sit idle; a toad won’t remove itself from the oil pipe." His supporters broke down into tears and some were arrested outside the courthouse as new protests were called for later tonight. Russian stocks plummeted after the news, as investors worry about the nation's ability to enforce the rule of law.
Journalists and activists in Russia were dismayed by the result, even as they expected it from Putin's regime. Nearly everyone covering the trial agreed that the charges were fabricated and they did not hide their displeasure at the verdict.
Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far. But he is smart, funny, young and good and it is very, very hard to see him go to jail.— Miriam Elder (@MiriamElder) July 18, 2013
Gonna email NYT op-ed desk and check if they'd be interested in an essay consisting of the word "fuck" 500 to 700 (I'm flexible) times over.— Michael Idov (@michaelidov) July 18, 2013
Today, I feel very unobjective.— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) July 18, 2013
Russian chattering classes not been so despondent since Putin's return. Navalny's jailing is the consequence— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 18, 2013
Can't remember when I've seen the Moscow press corps so openly despondent.— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) July 18, 2013
Others also lashed out at European and American officials who failed to stick up for Navalny and merely stated they were "concerned" and "disappointed" by the verdict, without making much effort to sanction Russia for their behavior.
Still more observers also couldn't help but make comparisons to the Edward Snowden situation, noting the irony of his decision to seek political asylum from a country that routinely jails its own critics.
Navalny himself accused the judge of simply reading the prosecution's charges back to him in court. (The judge in the case, Sergei Blinov, has never issued a not-guilty verdict in 131 cases in his career.) Some are already calling the Moscow mayoral election illegitimate, if one of the primary contenders can be eliminated so easily.
The case is reminiscent of the one waged against billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another political opponent of Putin's who was jailed in 2003 on similar charges and is still considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. Once the richest man in Russia, Khodorkovsky oil company was bankrupted and sold off by the government and his original nine-year sentence was later extended until 2017. There is some concern that Navalny could also end up in jail indefinitely.
Even up until the verdict was read, there was still hope that Navalny would get a suspended sentence or another ruling that would punish him less severely. In an interview with The Guardian last Friday, Navalny remained defiant and optimistic, but was still sadly cognizant about the situation he faced:
"For every person, of course, hope dies last. Since you feel absolutely not guilty and know that everyone around you considers you absolutely not guilty, then in the depths of your soul somewhere you hope that the judge will come out, take out his hammer and say 'not guilty. And something will happen like in American films and everyone will start hugging.
But we all understand that this wasn't all started so that everyone would hug like in American films."